Hey sleep enthusiast, of the many frustrating symptoms of sleep deprivation, there’s one that comes from a particularly cruel irony. When you struggle with insomnia, then when it finally does happen, you end up having vivid dreams. Or worse still, nightmares! So you wake up both fatigued from getting just a few hours of sleep as well as exhausted, and maybe confused, from the emotional rollercoaster your dreams took you on.
As a sleep coach, this is one of the most challenging situations that I come across with clients who are fed up with of their situation. If this is a scenario that you have experienced, I’ll share some information to help understand why this situation can happen, along with ways to get through it. Plus how the answer to resolving it lies in the content of the nightmares or vivid dreams themselves. Spoiler alert - there’s more to interpreting dreams than Googling the meaning of your teeth falling out.
Insomnia and vivid dreams
The link between insomnia and having more vivid dreams and nightmares comes down to when dreams typically take place in the stages of sleep. When you miss out on sleep, the usual cycles are interrupted and the impact of that is the REM stage has some catching up to do. This is a restorative state when the brain is highly active and dreams typically take place.
So when you’ve had insomnia and not been able to drift off, then you finally have a chance to go into REM sleep, a phenomenon called REM rebound can happen. It’s when the brain is working overtime to complete the REM process in less time. So it comes with an increased frequency and intensity of brain activity. Hence the vivid dreams!
REM rebound can also take place when you may be experiencing increased stress in life or withdrawing from drug use. That’s because some drugs can suppress REM sleep, so when you stop taking the drug, the REM stage of sleep comes back all the more powerful. This can happen with antidepressants and some anti-psychotics, as well as alcohol, cannabis and cocaine.
Breaking the loop of intense dreams
You can find yourself in a vicious circle of exhaustion if you continue to get by with sleep deprivation combined with REM rebound. This kind of scenario can lead to becoming anxious about sleep, which adds extra tension and makes falling asleep even more difficult.
So what can be done about this? As always with sleep coaching, there are a few different approaches that can be taken. My usual recommendation is to get your sleep hygiene basics down first - reviewing the practicalities of your routine and sleep hygiene gives you more of a chance of getting Restful Sleep.
This may take some discipline to form new habits, as well as being courageous if you’ve built up some anxiousness around going to sleep. You can read this advice for dealing with racing thoughts at night and sleep anxiety or you’re also welcome to book a free discovery call to discuss your experience and get personalised support from Restful Sleep coaching to shift out of this challenging phase.
Ways to remember dreams and learn from them
Once you are getting more reliable sleep and have more energy, the next stage is to get curious about what’s going on for you in your vivid dream experiences. Much like when a rebound relationship drifts into weird and intense territory, whilst it can be an uncomfortable experience, there’s often a gift of insight underneath that’s waiting for your attention.
The techniques below offer a few different considerations when it comes to considering dreams or nightmares and what message they may have for your waking life.
Appreciate the emotional insights they can give
Rather than potentially avoiding dealing with your dreams, or writing them off as entertainment, can you think of your dreams as messengers? They can contain inner thoughts and feelings that you still have to process. If you're curious about diving deeper into this, you can read more about emotions in dreams.
Hold the intention to dream and remember their details
By making a conscious effort to set an intention to remember your dreams, both before you go to bed and when you wake up, you build your dream recall skills. If you're feeling extra adventurous, you can even take the wild path to exploring lucid dreaming - please note, this is only recommended if you are fully trusting your sleep patterns.
Meditation and relaxation practices
Relaxation techniques and focused breathing can help you get more familiar with the moving between the different states of consciousness from wakefulness to sleep. You read more about these states here and try out a breathing exercise below:
Dream journaling & suggested structure
Saving the best for last – dream journaling! It's like keeping a diary of your nighttime adventures. Jot down all the details you can remember from your dreams so you track your dreams over time and spot themes as you look back to find meaning. I love to use the Elsewhere app, because it gathers insights over time about your dreams, and then creates beautiful AI art based on your dreams.
How Restful Sleep coaching can help
If you’d like to get support in exploring what may be going on for you with dreams and sleep, you can book a free discovery call. This is your chance to ask any questions and find out how Restful Sleep coaching could help with finding ways that work for you and your lifestyle, when it comes to getting more consistent sleep.