How Long Do Dreams Last?

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Practical Psychology

Everyone has experienced a dream that seems like it lasts forever. The dream plays out like a movie, running the course of what feels like hours or days. When you finally wake up from the dream, you realize you’ve only been asleep for a few minutes! If you’ve ever had questions about why we dream or how long dreams last, you’re in the right place. 

How Long Do Dreams Last? 

The answer depends on how long we move through the sleep cycles. Dreams can last for a few seconds or they can last for up to two hours. They feel longer because our brain works differently when we’re sleeping than when we’re awake!

How Much Time Do You Spend Dreaming? 

Even though some dreams only last for a few minutes, we might spend up to four hours of a full night’s sleep dreaming. Again, this varies depending on how well we are sleeping and how long we’re asleep. The body moves through various sleep cycles throughout the night: light, deep, REM, deep, light, deep, etc. As the body moves into subsequent REM cycles, it spends more time in REM sleep. 

Although most dreams take place in the REM stage of sleep, some studies suggest this is only a myth. (Researchers still have a lot of questions about sleep and dreaming!) Certainly, the most vivid dreams take place in REM sleep.

This is why it’s so important to get a full night’s sleep! Taking naps throughout the day may perk you up after a night with little sleep, but extended time in REM sleep is crucial for learning, memory processing, and other brain functions. 

Why Do Dreams Feel So Long? 

If you’re only dreaming for a few minutes at a time, why do they feel like they’ve gone on for hours? Again, researchers aren’t entirely sure. The most popular theories have to do with how the body and brain function differently during sleep. During REM sleep, the muscles are paralyzed. The body is at a lower temperature than in wakefulness. Heart rate, breathing rate, and other functions are also different. With these different capabilities, the brain could have to “work harder” than normal. Or, the brain just works more slowly. 

Why Do Dreams Feel So Real? 

Although our brains may be working more slowly when we’re dreaming, they are still working with many similar processes that it uses in wakefulness. Again, in REM sleep, our bodies are paralyzed but our minds are awake. The same pathways that take in information about the world around you are working hard during sleep. This is why your dreams, and even the memories of your dreams, can feel so real. 

Think about it this way. Pain is all in the brain. Our minds are needed to let us know that we’re in pain. Dreams are the same way. Pain, and dreams, feel real, even though they’re all in the mind. 

Do You Dream Every Night? 

Dreams happen every time we sleep, even when we don’t remember them! That’s a lot of time when we’re thinking about meeting our crush, losing our teeth, or being chased by a giant marshmallow!

Why Do You Only Remember Some of Your Dreams? 

There are a few reasons why we might forget dreams. As the night goes on and you fall in and out of REM sleep, you may forget dreams from earlier in the night. Remember, our brains work similarly to how they work in wakefulness. You may not remember everything that happened during the day, and you may not happen everything that happened in your dreams! 

Another reason you may forget your dreams is that you’ve transitioned back to wakefulness after REM sleep and your brain decides it doesn’t need to remember your dream. If you do wake up in the middle of a vivid dream, it’s possibly because you were in REM sleep! Alarms or loud noises can pull you out of REM sleep, mid-dream.

Finally, you might forget dreams because of the constant distractions that surround you when you wake up. Maybe your phone serves as your alarm, so it’s in your hands at the beginning of each day. Your brain immediately focuses on your phone and your notifications! If you want to remember more of your dreams, try using a different alarm clock and writing down your dreams as soon as you wake. 

Avoid Nightmares With These Tips 

The worst dreams to remember are nightmares. Whether it’s a dream about a loved one dying or the feeling of sleep paralysis, nightmares are dreams you’d rather forget. They often feel inevitable, like you have no control over whether you will go to sleep and dream of your crush or dream of your loved one dying. 

But do you have control? By understanding nightmares, you may find that you have more control than you think. 

Why Do We Have Nightmares? 

Nightmares serve the same purpose as dreams. Our brains are just trying to process memories! Stressful memories, one could say, lead to stressful dreams. This seems to be true, although there are many reasons why we might have nightmares. 

Nightmares typically happen due to:

  • Stress 
  • Anxiety 
  • PTSD

Contrary to myths, there is no evidence to suggest that certain foods before bed cause nightmares. There is an explanation for why some drinks or a big dinner may correlate with nightmares. Heavy food and drink both interrupt sleep. Without a full night’s deep sleep, we are more likely to remember our dreams (and our nightmares.) Try to eat only light snacks before dinner and stop drinking alcohol at least an hour or two before bed. 

How Long Do Nightmares Last? 

Nightmares typically take place in the longer stages of REM sleep. This means nightmares could last longer than more pleasant dreams. You are also more likely to remember them. There is no solid explanation why nightmares may last longer than pleasant dreams or why they take place later in the night. 

How to Avoid Nightmares 

If you are having trouble sleeping due to nightmares, you may need to process some memories in your waking life. Other small adjustments can help you avoid nightmares, too! 

  • Try to eat only light snacks before dinner and stop drinking alcohol at least an hour or two before bed. 
  • A new sleeping position may help you avoid nightmares. Sleeping on your back may disturb sleep. Try sleeping on your side.
  • Meditate or practice yoga before going to bed. Sleeping with stress on your mind may set you up for nightmares! 
  • Get a full night’s sleep as often as you can. Good sleep reduces stress, and high stress reduces your chances of a good night’s sleep! Budget out extra time for the recommended eight hours of sleep. 

Do Nightmares or Dreams Mean Anything?

Psychologists, healers, and other wise people have offered a lot of theories on the meaning of dreams. Rest assured, a dream about your crush rejecting you doesn’t mean it’s going to happen the next day. A dream about your teeth falling out might mean you’re stressed, but the dental situation in your sleep isn’t indicative of much in your waking life.

So get a good night’s sleep, and enjoy some long, happy dreams!

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2022, October). How Long Do Dreams Last?. Retrieved from

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