Want To Have Better Dreams? Follow These 8 Tips for Making Your Dream World a More Positive Place

Photo: Getty Images/andresr
There are good dreams, and then there are great dreams. You know the type—the dreams so good that once you wake up, you hurriedly try to go back to sleep in order to hold onto them for just a little while longer. Whether they involve kissing Jacob Elordi on the red carpet (just me?) or swimming with orcas in the Pacific Ocean, your most positive and memorable dreams might just be powerful enough to leave you wanting to learn how to have good dreams every night.

After all, good dreams aren't just nice to experience or great fodder for your imagination. Research shows that positive dreaming can help us work through emotional experiences1 (leaving us calmer and less reactive the next day) and enhance our "cognitive flexibility,"2 allowing us to be more creative. (Whereas, on the flip side, having bad dreams and nightmares has been associated with poor sleep quality3... which can, in turn, leave you cranky and tired throughout the day.) All of which is to say, we miss out on *so* much more than a Jacob Elordi smooch when we're not having those sweet dreams.

Experts In This Article

The good news is, you can absolutely take action in your waking life to help promote better dreams at night. Below, dream experts break down what causes dreams in the first place (both good and bad) and what influences their content, and share how to ensure you have more sweet dreams going forward.

What causes dreams?

Dreams occur when the mind involuntarily creates stories while we sleep, drawing on a combination of real and fantastical imagery to make us feel as if we're having an experience that isn't actually happening. Some dreams are long and vivid, with visually complex settings and identifiable characters; others are simple and abrupt, seemingly ending as soon as they begin.

Not all dreams are good ones, of course: Recurring dreams, stress dreams, and certain types of nightmares can signal unresolved conflicts and put you face-to-face with your own fears or trauma, while sickness-induced dreams can get *seriously* weird (consider yourself lucky if you’ve never had the dreaded COVID nightmare4).

But even if you think you don’t dream, science suggests that every one of us dreams every single night—many of us simply struggle with dream recall5 and can’t remember our dreams at all upon waking.

As for what exactly causes those dreams to occur? Research has shown that we go through four sleep stages during a typical sleep cycle (which is about 90 to 120 minutes long), the last of which is rapid eye movement, or REM sleep. And as the night goes on, we spend more time in that final REM phase, which is when the brain is most active6 and most of our dreaming occurs7—hence, why we tend to have the most vivid dreams later into the night and in the early morning, just before we wake up.

When the REM stage of our sleep cycle gets disrupted or we aren't getting enough REM sleep (which can happen with small amounts of sleep deprivation8), we’re less likely to remember the dreams we’re having. This is why “getting a good night’s sleep is key to remembering and connecting to our dreams,” says astrologer and dream interpreter Stephanie Gailing, author of The Complete Book of Dreams.

Why do I only have bad dreams?

If you *never* have positive dreams—yet frequently experience recurring nightmares or bad dreams—it’s likely because of unresolved anxiety or stress triggered by conflict that’s occurring while you’re awake.

Unaddressed relationship conflicts, workplace stress, and/or untreated mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)9 can trickle into your dreams as your mind attempts to resolve these things in its dream state. “If something upsetting has been going on in your life and you don’t attend to it, invariably it’s going to want your attention, and could therefore arise in your dreams as your subconscious seeks to give it voice,” explains Gailing.

“If something upsetting has been going on in your life and you don’t attend to it...it’s going to want your attention, and could therefore arise in your dreams.” —Stephanie Gailing, dream interpreter

Frequent bad dreams and nightmares could also be related to the type of content you’re consuming. A 2016 study analyzing the media consumption and dream content of more than 1,200 participants found that people who consumed “violent media” within 90 minutes of falling asleep10 were 13 times more likely to have a violent dream that night. Certain medications, sleep irregularities (caused by a sleep condition or otherwise), and high levels of worry can also contribute to frequent nightmares11.

And those nightmares can have a ripple effect on our mental health. “Nightmares and traumatic dreams have a tendency to linger in our memories because, by definition, you wake up from a nightmare and your brain has not finished processing that data—meaning it’s stuck in the front of your brain,” says sleep doctor Michael J. Breus, PhD, chief sleep advisor at mattress company Purple. “Depending on the content of the dream,” he adds, “it could easily have a disruptive effect.”

Can you make your dreams better?

While we can’t directly influence the specific details of our dreams (they’re the product of our subconscious, after all), we can certainly take actions in our waking life to yield a larger number of positive dreams overall. Getting enough high-quality sleep, addressing conflicts as they occur (to keep your nighttime brain from ruminating on them), and seeking therapy to address lingering trauma can all help resolve recurring bad dreams, thus paving the way for more frequent good ones.

According to dream analyst Lauri Loewenberg, author of Dream on It: Unlock Your Dreams, Change Your Life, you can also use the content of your bad dreams to figure out what kinds of conflict you may need to resolve in your waking life. “Dreaming is a conversation with the self,” says Loewenberg, and when you fail to address the messages you're receiving from your subconscious mind, "they tend to reappear." Meaning, it's important to consider what your bad dreams are trying to communicate about your life—maybe you owe a friend an apology, or you've been carrying a secret that it's time to reveal—and act on that message.

Looking for more insights on how to take back your dream world? Below, experts share additional tips for optimizing your sleep to bring on all the sweet dreams.

How to have good dreams: 8 expert-backed tips for positive dreams

1. Limit the content you consume prior to bed

Dr. Breus suggests not interacting with any negative content for the 90-minute window before you hit the hay. That’s because your brain needs about that much time to process information that won’t exactly boost your mood. “If you are watching disturbing content right before bed, chances are, you will probably dream about the disturbing content,” he says.

According to Loewenberg, this might happen because “we tend to dream about what’s on our mind the most,” and oftentimes, what’s on our mind is simply what we were thinking about right before bed.

2. Stop drinking alcohol at least three hours before bed

“Drinking can actually repress your dreams,” says Loewenberg. “You'll still dream, but you're going to spend a lot less time in REM sleep when you go to bed drunk.” (And less time in REM means less opportunity for dreams.)

Dr. Breus adds that there's a “big difference between going to sleep and passing out” with respect to sleep quality and dreaming. Even if alcohol leads you to conk out easily, "it can actually increase the likelihood of more disruptive dreams, [and] multiple awakenings, and it will also disrupt REM sleep," he says.

To help ensure your evening drinks don't interfere with your sleep and dreams, Dr. Breus also suggests drinking a glass of water for each alcoholic beverage you consume.

3. Limit your caffeine intake

Dr. Breus says your hard stop for caffeine consumption each day should be 2 p.m., if you're looking to improve your sleep and dreams. (He also notes that it’s even better not to drink caffeine at all after midday.) “Caffeine will keep you in the lighter stages of sleep, so [it may lead to] less REM, which means less dreaming,” he says.

Of course, some people need a midday boost in terms of energy—and there’s nothing wrong with that. If that sounds like you, consider eating foods that boost your energy levels in other ways instead of going for a caffeine-rich cup of joe.

4. Try not to eat right before bed

While there is yet to be sufficient research regarding the specific impact of diet on dreams (there’s no scientific proof that chocolate causes nightmares, FYI), plenty of research has shown that eating too close to bedtime can cause sleep-related problems12.

"A good rule is to avoid eating at all within two hours of bedtime," says Loewenberg. "If you…eat something that's very heavy, very rich, very sugary, it’s likely to cause bad dreams."

If you’re hungry, though, you shouldn’t deprive yourself or your body of nourishment, even if it's close to your bedtime. Instead of grabbing something high in sugar, Loewenberg suggests you go for a sandwich or a vegetable, and after you eat, wait at least an hour before sleeping, so that your digestive system has already kicked into gear before you're trying to fall asleep.

5. Reflect on your day before bed

If a particularly tumultuous day causes you to fall asleep angry, the quality of sleep you get may be compromised. When we fail to address the conflicts we face during our waking life, they tend to make an appearance during our sleep... and often in the form of nightmares.

“I encourage people to think about their day or write about it in a journal before bed,” says Gailing. “By including not just the activities you did, but also, how you may have been feeling [during them], you're able to process some emotions while awake so that these don’t pepper your dreams.”

If you end up having a hard conversation with a loved one or receiving tough news right before your bedtime, psychotherapist Annie Armstrong Miyao suggests doing a bit of introspection. “Be honest with yourself, and allow space to consider your emotions, needs, and heart’s desires,” she says.

6. Focus on your sleep hygiene

Improving your sleep hygiene (AKA the quality of your sleep environment and pre-sleep behaviors) can improve your overall sleep quality, which may increase your chances of having positive dreams, says Gailing. Along with following the dietary suggestions outlined above, that means doing things like tamping down your screen use before bed; ensuring your bedroom is cool, dark, quiet, and clean; and establishing a consistent bedtime and wake-up time.

7. Set intentions for your dreams 

Just before you head to bed, Gailing suggests using a method called dream incubation to call in positive, helpful dreams. “This nighttime intention-setting practice has not only been practiced for thousands of years, but also has some research supporting its efficacy13,” she says.

To use the dream incubation technique, close your eyes and consciously ask your dreams to bring forth awareness about a particular topic in which you’re interested, like your relationships or your aspirations. Doing this, says Gailing, seeds the intention in our conscious mind for our subconscious mind to provide us the answers within our dreams.

“The next morning as you reflect upon your dream, consider its contents through the lens of your inquiry,” suggests Gailing. That may help you uncover more context and figure out its message, whether it was good or bad.

8. Record your dreams

Dream journaling (or writing down what you remember of a dream right after you wake up) can help you decipher what your dreams may be trying to tell you, says Miyao. And in better understanding your dreams, you'll be better equipped to process the bad ones—and create more room for positive ones.

Miyao suggests identifying a few symbols from a dream and listing out your associations or connections with those symbols, or simply writing down the emotions of a dream to figure out its overarching theme.

When you keep a dream journal over time, you can also start identifying patterns in your dreams. Are there certain periods of life or days of the week when you tend to have bad dreams? And what about good ones? Once you connect the dots between waking-life behaviors and your frequency of good or bad dreams around those behaviors, you can make a conscious effort to do more of the things that tend to be correlated with your positive dreams.

Are there specific relaxation techniques that promote positive dreaming?

While there has not been a study connecting a particular relaxation technique to positive dreams, some research suggests that certain calm-inducing methods can lead to better sleep, and potentially, better dreams by proxy.

A 2021 systematic review of studies assessing the efficacy of aromatherapy in treating sleep disorders14 supports the full-body relaxing capabilities of certain fragrance oils. For example, it found that the linalool and linalyl acetate contained in lavender is effective at increasing activity of the parasympathetic nervous system (AKA "rest-and-digest" nervous system) and slowing the heart rate, leading to a relaxing effect on the body and better sleep.

By the same token, a 2018 analysis of 18 different trials found that practicing mindfulness meditation before bedtime15 can also improve overall sleep quality, likely by enhancing relaxation.

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
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  5. Dal Sacco, Diego. “Dream recall frequency and psychosomatics.” Acta bio-medica : Atenei Parmensis vol. 93,2 e2022046. 11 May. 2022, doi:10.23750/abm.v93i2.11218
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  8. Barbato, Giuseppe. “REM Sleep: An Unknown Indicator of Sleep Quality.” International journal of environmental research and public health vol. 18,24 12976. 9 Dec. 2021, doi:10.3390/ijerph182412976
  9. El-Solh, Ali A. “Management of nightmares in patients with posttraumatic stress disorder: current perspectives.” Nature and science of sleep vol. 10 409-420. 26 Nov. 2018, doi:10.2147/NSS.S166089
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  11. Rek, Stephanie et al. “Nightmares in the general population: identifying potential causal factors.” Social psychiatry and psychiatric epidemiology vol. 52,9 (2017): 1123-1133. doi:10.1007/s00127-017-1408-7
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