Why Are My Dreams So Vivid?

A very common first response from individuals who learn I am a dreamwork practitioner is, “Oh really? I have such vivid dreams. Some of them feel so real.”

Often the conversation may continue, and the individual will tell me how lifelike their dream experiences can feel — how colorful or rich with sensory experience. The person is typically amazed by this, or confused.

The implied question is: Why do my dreams feel so real? After all, they are “just dreams.”

In Natural Dreamwork (the method I work my own dreams and guide my clients with), we honor the realness of the dream. By this I mean we take time to engage with the dream as if it really happened. After all, many of us wake up sweating, crying, screaming, laughing, or tingling with desire after a dream. Those are real responses to encounters; as real as any in waking life, even if we swiftly invalidate them or purposefully forget when we awaken.

As someone who often recalls very vivid dreams — rich with detail and emotion — I appreciate this momentary lack of distinction between waking life and dream life. It feels validating to me.

For years, I felt very lonely as a result of my vivid dreams. It was sort of like going on a great vacation with friends, but no one remembered it except for me, and there were no pictures documenting it ever happened.

Since I started working with my dreamwork practitioner, I have a biweekly space in which I get to honor the realness of the dream, re-entering it and giving myself permission to feel the feelings that arose there.

Of course doing so first requires a kind of suspension of my waking life disbelief. My awake mind may say it’s impossible to have coffee with a dead relative, impossible to go back in time to when my now-adult child was a toddler, impossible to shoot fire from my fingertips, impossible to make love to the former president, etc. etc.

When we work the dream, however, we get curious about these “impossibilities.” We allow space for them to be as real as they felt to us in the dream. We let ourselves feel what it was like for it to be real in the dream. Afterwards, we may ask ourselves, “Is that feeling familiar from waking life?”

You may be surprised how often the feeling is familiar, even if the event itself was fantastical or surreal.

Sometimes, though, the feeling isn’t familiar. In fact, when we take the time to consider the question, we become brutally aware at how foreign certain strong feelings are to us in waking life. 

When was the last time you allowed yourself to sink into sadness about a painful loss or rejection? When was the last time you stopped to gaze into a loved one’s eyes, grateful that he was alive and standing there before you?

For some of us, feelings like tenderness or empathy or sadness or love are only possible at a distance — either after the fact, or as memory, longing, or regret. Some of us have become so numb to or afraid of strong feelings we can only feel anything when listening to a sad song or watching a poignant moment between two characters on TV. 

For many of us, dreams present us with opportunities to feel feelings we have never felt about our own experience, or have not felt in a very long time. Dreamwork allows us to feel safe again in feeling and even to simmer in feelings if we choose to.

I notice that vivid dreamers are sometimes Type A individuals in waking life: very busy, hyper-vigilant, high achievers. We’ve become very adept at living life in our minds: judging others or the world as good or bad, and then seeking to make sense of it, control it, or fix it. In dreams, however, we don’t always get to control our environment the way we do in waking life. Our vivid dreams may purposefully offer us out-of-control events in order to stimulate feelings we might not allow or notice in waking life.

Vivid dreamers may also be the product of a traumatic childhood, in which a person consciously muted sensory experience in order to cope with waking-life pain or abuse. When there is too much pain, the way many of us survive is to emotionally or physically block out, brace, or dissociate from feeling. Vivid dreams may arise at a time when a deeper part of self knows it’s okay to re-engage with difficult feelings; okay to begin trying to heal them.

Sometimes vivid dreamers are people who have a difficult time processing waking life at the speed expected of them by others. In dreams, life slows down sometimes. In that space, we get “more time” to digest the what, who, and how around us. It subsequently feels richer, and hyper-real compared to waking life.

Yes, sometimes vivid dreams feel more alive than waking life.

This can leave us feeling sad and wanting more of that in waking life. Alternatively, our vivid dreams can feel so real we become terrified to go to sleep, terrified by the anticipation of pain we try so very hard to avoid feeling while awake.

I’m not going to sugarcoat this: Working our dreams brings to life the entire range of feeling — from divine wonder to indescribable terror … and everything in between.

That said, our dreams are kind. Our dream characters love us. Everything they bring us, they bring to us “on time.” They are patient and they know when it’s too soon for an image or a feeling. They are gentle, even in their brazen disregard for our belief that we are not yet ready to feel. The dream characters know how to reach you; sometimes with humor, sometimes in the most surprising and unexpected ways.

A good dreamwork practitioner will be loving, kind, and patient, too. None of us want you to break. On the contrary, we want you to know your wholeness.

* * *

There are other theories I have about vivid dreams; theories that would be considered paranormal or supernatural.  These theories involve time travel, past lives, bilocation, or transferring of consciousness.

What I have come to realize, however, is that no matter what the cause or how extraordinary the mechanism, the dream experience is often vividly real as a result of experiencing the dream events in the first-person perspective.

The experience, therefore, is ours to feel, and ours to get more curious about. When we do, we are presented with so many opportunities for healing and growth in waking life. And, no matter our spiritual beliefs about this life (and death), we can probably agree that we all still want and need to navigate our waking life relationships and responsibilities optimally.

In my experience, working with my vivid dreams has opened me up to a more vivid life, one in which I enjoy and appreciate encountering now with less numbness than I used to; one in which I feel a bit safer inhabiting in its fullness, even if doing so sometimes leads to feelings of loss and pain.

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