Last night I was on a steam train, going to boarding school while, at the same time and with a growing sense of panic, I was trying to bake a loaf of bread. I knew I didn’t have enough time for the loaf to rise and the stress was getting to me.
By the time I woke up from this, my most recent dream, my heart was racing and I felt breathless.
Dreams like this aren’t a rare occurrence – my dreams are regularly vivid, colourful and panic-inducing. Some are one-offs while others are repeated over and over again.
By contrast, my husband tends to have dreams so dull he either doesn’t remember them, or recounts such gems as: ‘I was waiting to buy a new printer cartridge and the receptionist told me to take a seat.’ Thrilling stuff.
However, it seems our experiences are pretty typical. ‘Women tend to experience a wider variety of dreams than men,’ explains dream researcher Professor Kelly Bulkeley, co-author of Dreaming In The Classroom.
‘Women have more nightmares, more emotional dreams, more surreal ones and greater trouble sleeping.’
Interestingly, research suggests that one key to women’s vivid night-time experiences could be our hormones. ‘Research has shown female hormonal cycles can affect dreams,’ says Davina Mackail, author of The Dream Whisperer. ‘We tend to have more emotional or nightmarish dreams just before a period.’
A study suggests that changes in female body temperature, caused by the monthly cycle, are at the root of particularly colourful dreams. Body temperature rises after ovulation and drops just before a period.
‘The latter stages of pregnancy also disturb women’s sleep, so they’re more likely to remember dreams, as they’ll wake during an REM cycle.’
… AND HERE’S WHAT THE TOP FIVE MEAN:
These are the five most common female dreams – and what psychologists think they symbolise…
Appearing naked in public
This indicates that you are feeling vulnerable and are afraid of being exposed. It also represents being caught off guard, suggesting there is something happening in your life that you are unprepared for.
Dreams of being chased simply suggest that you are avoiding an issue or trying to run away and hide from something that you don’t want to confront. The person or thing chasing you may also represent an aspect of your personality, such as feelings of jealousy, anger and hatred.
This could mean that you are feeling overwhelmed and out of control of something in your waking life. It can also represent a sense of failure or feeling inferior.
This is often a type of dream called a ‘lucid dream’, when a person knows they are dreaming. If you are enjoying flying, it can reflect that you are in control of a situation. Feeling fear when flying indicates that you are afraid of challenges or being successful.
Teeth falling out
Dreams in which your teeth start to wobble, crumble or fall out in your hands are related to self-esteem issues. Experts believe that this dream reflects your anxieties about your appearance or how others perceive you. Another theory is that they show you are afraid of making a fool of yourself, or of being embarrassed in some way.
‘Pregnancy has a big impact on dreaming,’ agrees Kelly Bulkeley. ‘There’s more dream recall, more images involving animals and water, and more nightmares.’
But it’s not just pregnant women who are affected by nightmares. ‘We found that all women reported significantly more nightmares than men,’ says Dr Parker.
‘Only 19 per cent of men reported recent nightmares, compared with 30 per cent of women.’
Women may also recall dreams more effectively because we bestow them with more significance than men do. Research shows that focusing on important thoughts activates a brain region connected to memory. So the more dramatic your dream, the more significant it will seem, and the more likely you are to recall it.
We may even be better at remembering dreams. ‘It’s because women talk about them more afterwards,’ says Kelly Bulkeley.
‘Traits such as openness to new experience, emotional expressiveness and sensitivity also tend to be higher among women, and are all connected with dream recall,’ she adds. ‘Women are trained to be more attentive to emotional experience than men, and more willing to share their feelings with other people.’
It all sounds so positive — if only it was simply a case of us lying back and enjoying the dream-movie ride. But our hectic subconscious seemingly affects our exhaustion levels during the day, too. A Vitality Show report found that more than half of women regularly feel exhausted, and 60 per cent of over-30s feel ‘shattered’.
So while our psychedelic dreams may sometimes be entertaining, it would help if we could choose whether to have them. But it may not be as simple as cutting out cheese, the traditionally culprit for nightmares.
‘Late night cheese-eating, alcohol, cigarettes, chocolate and caffeine have all been blamed for causing dreams — particularly nightmares,’ says Davina Mackail. ‘But there’s nothing specific in any of these substances that will lead to increased dreaming. However, they are stimulants or difficult to digest, so they disturb our sleep patterns, making for a higher likelihood of waking during one of those all-important REM phases.’
Instead, avoid eating for two hours before bed, and institute a ‘winding down’ period. ‘Try a bath before you go to bed — this helps to raise the body temperature and, as it decreases, you should feel ready to nod off,’ says Victoria Dawson. ‘Avoid stimulating drinks such as cola, coffee and tea after 6pm, and don’t watch TV or check emails during the hour before bed — try listening to classical music or a relaxation CD.’
If such techniques don’t work, however, or you’re particularly stressed, many sleep experts recommend keeping a ‘sleep diary’ to identify patterns and links, such as a hot room or disturbed sleep to vivid dreams or nightmares.
But if you’ve tried everything and are still plagued with dreams of David Hasselhoff chasing you down the street or terrible plane crashes, take comfort from the fact that dreaming is essential — and even beneficial.
A U.S. study found that creative problem-solving is aided by REM sleep. And further research from Harvard discovered that volunteers who had enjoyed REM-cycle dreams were up to ten times better at learning a complex task than volunteers who hadn’t slept.
Dream deprivation is also associated with impaired co-ordination and learning, irritability and lack of focus — that’s why, increasingly, dream researchers believe there are strong links between dreaming and mental wellbeing.
What’s more, there’s always the chance your vivid dreams will allow you to experience your waking fantasies more fully.
‘I once dreamt about a very attractive, married colleague,’ admits my friend Sarah. ‘It was the most wonderful, passionate dream. The only problem was, I couldn’t look him in the eye for weeks afterwards, and he had no idea what the problem was.’
That’s the thing with vivid dreams. They may be terrifying, scary, enjoyable or simply incredible – but they very rarely come true.
by Susan Floyd