What Does It Mean If Your Dreams Are Frustratingly Realistic?

Photographed by Michael Beckert.
They say the content of a dream is really only interesting to the person who dreamed it, and anyone who's had to listen to their friend's play-by-play rambling about their "crazy dream" knows what we're talking about. Sometimes dreams are such a far cry from reality that they do make for somewhat entertaining cocktail party conversation. Other times, dreams are just a rendering of what goes on while you're awake, which isn't really that exciting to recount. But what does it mean if your dreams tend to be really boring or literal?
First, it's helpful to understand some outside factors that could cause interesting dreams, according to Michael Breus, PhD, a clinical psychologist and American Academy of Sleep Medicine fellow. For example, if you are on certain medications (such as antidepressants, beta blockers, or blood pressure meds), the drugs can make your dreams more vivid, Dr. Breus says. But otherwise, your dreams are likely based on what happened to you during the day.

[Dreams] are truly ways for us to consolidate emotions and memories, and to span out what to remember and what to forget.

Shelby Harris, PsyD
"Any stressful events that the person is thinking about immediately before they fall asleep will have an effect on the content," Dr. Breus says. So if you fall asleep stewing about how your flatmate never takes out the rubbish, you could have a dream about your flatmate failing to take out the rubbish. If you're bad at waking up on time, you might've internalised some anxiety about this and have a dream that you woke up, took a shower, then got ready to go. Mundane dream, taken at face value — but the story it tells is that you are, or should be, prioritising your morning routine.
Some people just tend to absorb or hold onto more content during the day that reappears in their dreams, Dr. Breus explains. Sometimes it can take days for these events to show up in a dream, which is a phenomenon that researchers call "dream lag." The foods that you ate at dinner or before bed may contribute to how well you remember your dreams, he says. But beyond these theories, it's not well understood exactly why we dream about what we dream about, or why certain things come up when they do.
The stage of sleep you're in might have something to do with your dreams, and people tend to dream more during rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep, the stage of sleep when your brain is very awake, says Shelby Harris, PsyD, director of behavioural sleep medicine at the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at Montefiore Medical Center. Dreaming during REM is sort of "a way for your brain to figure out what to remember and file away in the filing cabinet, and what to shred and forget," Dr. Harris says. "This is why dreams tend to be jumbled at times, but also so literal — they're truly ways for us to consolidate emotions and memories, and to figure out what to remember and what to forget." Waking up during REM sleep can make your dream feel even more realistic, according to Dr. Breus.
Basically dreams are very nuanced and are often a reflection of a few different personal factors. Sometimes dreams are really odd and other times they're pretty boring, but that doesn't necessarily mean that you're odd or boring. Don't stress if you're a wild dreamer, either — because that just means you'll have a few stories up your sleeve next time you're at an awkward dinner party.

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