For many, one of the strangest parts of taking antidepressants is dealing with an influx of wild, vivid dreams. But what is it like to have these dreams, and where do they come from? Stylist takes a closer look.
Welcome to Women On Antidepressants, a new series exploring the issues young women face around getting prescribed, experiencing side effects, dealing with relationships while on medication, and life after antidepressants.
When it comes to antidepressants, side effects are far from uncommon, especially at the beginning. From insomnia and nausea to a lowered sex drive and fatigue, for many, choosing to take (or continue taking) antidepressants is a balancing act between dealing with the symptoms and reaping the benefits the medication can provide.
But the infamous antidepressant side effects you’ll find listed on the NHS website aren’t the only ones affecting those who take the medication. In fact, there’s one side effect in particular which, although surprisingly common, seems to attract relatively little discussion: vivid dreams.
On first thought, dealing with vivid or abnormal dreams may not sound like that big a deal, especially compared to dealing with all the symptoms associated with anxiety, depression, OCD, or one of the other mental health conditions antidepressants are prescribed to treat. However, for those who have these dreams, it can be a strange and overwhelming experience.
Leeds-based Rose McLaughlin, 23, noticed her dreams were changing soon after she started taking antidepressants during her first year at university in 2015.
“It was my first year of uni and I’d move in with a bunch of strangers, and I started having really vivid dreams about daily life,” she recalls. “I remember dreaming that I woke up and went upstairs to the kitchen, and one of my housemates had stolen some cookies out of my cupboard, and I completely believed it had happened because it was so vivid.
“It was just such a boring, everyday thing that I thought ‘Why would I dream that?’ so I woke up and confronted her about it. She was just like ‘What are you on about?’. It caused me to sound like I was crazy.”
Marian Kwei, 39, from London, shares a similar experience. When she started taking antidepressants in November last year, she found herself confronted with a number of common side effects including nausea, weight gain and insomnia, most of which subsided as time went on.
However, her vivid dreams – which she noticed about two weeks into taking the medication – continued until she stopped taking her antidepressants a couple of weeks ago.
“When I say they were vivid,” she explains, “I mean the colours were brighter, the scenarios seemed more lifelike, and when I was dreaming, it really felt like I was awake.”
Kwei continues: “One of the dreams I kept having was that I was on the Tube, on the underground. I was always going somewhere – although I didn’t know where I’m going – but I’m on the train riding somewhere, and it felt so real that I’d wake up in my bed like ‘I’m sure I was on the central line.’
“I also had nightmares where it felt like I was stuck in a maze going round and round and round and round. From November up until when I stopped taking them a couple of weeks ago, I’d find myself waking up in the middle of the night with a cold sweat from the nightmares.”
However, sleep disruption isn’t the only issue those who experience vivid dreams as a result of their antidepressants say they have to deal with. Indeed, in some cases, like that of 26-year-old Steph Hebdon from Hull, these vivid dreams can add to the problems the medication is prescribed to treat.
Although at first, Steph says she found her vivid dreams to be “quite funny,” since being prescribed a second antidepressant recently, she says her dreams have become more disruptive and harder to deal with.
“They do tend to play a lot on my anxieties and stresses,” she explains. “I’ve had quite a few vivid ones about falling out with friends, or people that I care about bitching about me. They tend to play on what I’m worried about in everyday life, so they feel like they could definitely happen.”
For Steph, the realistic scenarios of the dreams are what make them so disturbing. “They played so much on what I was worrying about that they were quite distressing and I’d wake up in the night or the next morning and just feel terrible, quite low and anxious and distressed.”
And Steph isn’t alone in feeling distressed and disturbed by her dreams. One 40-year-old woman from London, who asked for her name to be withheld, described her dreams while taking antidepressants as “trippy,” and told Stylist she often found herself plagued by violent and unsettling images.
“[These dreams] were markedly different from my usual worry dreams – long, elaborate and very intense and ornate. I’d dream I was writing a book but all the letters turned to marble as soon as they hit the page, I’d dream of composing songs while on top of a lighthouse or find myself in the midst of a very violent battle scene in another century.
“Some of the more violent ones really upset me, and when you are so low you need medication, having your dreams haunted is kind of the last thing you need.”
It’s clear that experiencing vivid dreams while on antidepressants is not an uncommon occurrence – but what is it about the medication which causes such vivid and, for many, uber-realistic, dreams?
The short answer is this: experts aren’t completely sure. “It’s not entirely clear why antidepressants can have an impact on dreams,” points out Caroline Harper, mental health nurse adviser at Bupa UK. “There are a few theories – but ultimately, more research is needed before we can come to any firm conclusions.”
Currently, it’s believed that the relationship between antidepressants and vivid dreams could be to do with how they impact REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which is the part of the sleep cycle where dreaming occurs.
“It’s thought that, as your REM sleep amount is reduced and your number of neurotransmitters [the chemicals in your brain, such as serotonin, which are impacted by antidepressants] increases, your brain has less time to dream, so compensates by packing in as much information as possible within that REM sleep time,” Harper explains. “This can make dreams feel more vivid, which may feel positive or negative, depending on the nature of the dream.”
Harper also points out that the conditions antidepressants are prescribed to treat, such as depression, can cause sleep disturbances, so the added stress on the brain from a mental health condition could also contribute to more nightmarish sleep.
The main takeaway from all of this? If you’re experiencing vivid dreams while on antidepressants, you’re definitely not alone. “As with all medications, antidepressants can affect people in different ways,” Harper says. “Many people on antidepressants report abnormal dreams as a side effect.”
If your dreams are making it hard for you to get a good night’s sleep, or are contributing to ongoing feelings of anxiety and distress, remember that it’s OK to talk to your GP or mental health nurse about what’s going on, as they can help to adjust your dosage and plan a way forward.
“It’s important to speak to a GP before making any adjustments to your prescription, as a change in dosage can cause withdrawal symptoms and further side effects, including nightmares,” Harper adds.
Navigating the array of side effects that can be caused by antidepressants isn’t always easy, but if one thing’s for sure, talking about it – either with a doctor if you’re finding them hard to cope with, or a friend if you just want some extra support – can definitely help.
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS list of mental health helplines and organisations here.
If you are struggling with your mental health, you can also ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer.
You can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email email@example.com for confidential support.
In Stylist’s new digital series Women On Antidepressants we investigate the myriad of issues that surround women being prescribed, taking and coming off antidepressants. For news, first-person essays and features check the dedicated hub daily. If you have a story about antidepressants to share email firstname.lastname@example.org with ‘antidepressants’ in the subject line
As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.