By Flic Everett / Source: Daily Mail
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.
I often dream I'm searching for something in an old, crumbling house, or discovering abandoned rooms in my childhood home. Occasionally, the dreams will become nightmares, featuring bereavement, murder or terrifying chases up spiral staircases.
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.
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 from the University of the West of England 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.
'Women who are premenstrual tend to dream more aggressively, and are more likely to remember the dreams,' says study leader Dr Jennie Parker.
Not surprisingly, pregnancy also leads to exceptionally vivid dreams. 'During pregnancy, hormone levels rise and women find themselves spending a greater part of each night in REM sleep, which is when vivid dreaming takes place,' says Victoria Dawson, sleep expert and co-author of Insomnia: The Essential Guide.
'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.'
'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.
Edited by: Lawyer Asad