If you’re anything like me, you would’ve heard the phrase ‘Fever Dream‘ for the first time the Taylor Swift’s 2019 track, “Cruel Summer”, and wondered what is a fever dream. From the song, fever dreams sound like an euphoric experience, the dreams you dream when in love, with feelings of anxiety and longing playing in the background. Fever dreams may after all not always be an enviable dream to have.
1. What is a Fever Dream, Exactly?
For a phrase that’s used so much in mainstream conversation, fever dreams are still an enigma.
We’ve all been there with a stuffy nose and high fever just wishing we hadn’t eaten that ice cream on a winter’s night.
So, a fever, as we all know, is a condition in which we experience above-normal body temperature (above 97-99 F) and body aches, usually due to some underlying disease or infection. We’ve all been there with a stuffy nose and high fever just wishing we hadn’t eaten that ice cream on a winter’s night.
A fever is your body’s response to the infection caused by some virus or bacteria. These microorganisms thrive at normal temperatures. Hence, high body temperature is their nemesis. A raise of two degrees or more above your normal temperature is considered to be a fever.
Symptoms of fever usually include:
- Feeling cold or chills
- Body ache and lethargy
- Dampness or sweating
- Cough or other respiratory problems
- Fever dreams or hallucinations
What’s a dream? There are those of our parents that we never fulfilled. But let’s not go there right now. We’ll just delve into those dreams that occur when we’re sleeping.
So the answer to the question, of what is a fever dream, is that fever dreams are vivid dreams sometimes surreal and often colored with shades of nightmares. They’re emotionally intense and unusual dreams.
2. When do Fever Dreams Occur?
These strange dreams typically occur when a person is suffering from a fever. According to Dr. Beth Marlow, fever dreams occur more frequently during the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage of sleep. These dreams interrupt REM sleep.
2.1. REM Sleep
When one is sleeping, the brain goes through these stages of activity-
- Non-REM sleep: This phase occurs first and includes three stages. In the last two stages, we are considered to be in what is known as, ‘deep sleep‘.
- Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep: This occurs about an hour or an hour and a half after falling asleep. This is also when you experience most dreams.
This entire sleep cycle lasts for about 90 minutes and the first REM stage of sleep is short and keeps on increasing.
Another thing to note is that we don’t control our body temperature during the REM stage as well as we do in other stages and hence there can be an uncontrolled spike in temperature perception compared. When this sudden increase in temperature occurs, we may experience micro-arousals which are defined as ‘shifts between deep and light sleep’.
This increases the probability of us remembering that particular dream. It is the reason why fever dreams are so vivid.
3. Normal Dreams vs Fever Dreams
According to a study published in 2016 in the International Journal of Dream Research, which involved a comparison between normal dreams and those dreams experienced by people who were sick, around 94% of those who experienced fever dreams described the dreams as more negative and “emotionally intense dreams” than their regular dreams. There were even some mentions of greater than normal sized insects and “creatures with giant arms and legs“. Definitely the definition of unpleasant dreams.
Some even experienced a blackness “slowly spreading all over.” In Bizarreness in fever dreams: A questionnaire study, fever dreams were described as bizarre, more emotionally intense dreams and negatively toned. This study was the first of its kind and its results indicated that fever affects the sleeping brain’s normal cognitive processes.
In another online study conducted by Micheal Schredl and Daniel Erlacher, out of 164 responses, 100 were submissions of fever dreams. It stated the following result-
Fever dreams were definitely more bizarre. They were more negatively tones than other recent dreams. And fever dreams included more topics related to health and the perception of temperature was also included a lot in these dreams.
3.1. Fever Dream Examples Including Heat Perception
The subject was in their room sleeping and awoke because their body felt as if it were set ablaze. They tried to uncover their body and get something to drink but they felt too weak to do so. Their mother came in to try to help but couldn’t. The most intense feelings they experienced were weakness and helplessness.
3.2. Some Common Features of Fever Dreams
- Spatial distortion: Objects changing shape, melting objects, things looking different than you’re used to in your real life, moving walls, burning clouds, etc. were common in fever dreams.
- Those melting objects and burning clouds could also be due to the brain’s awareness of the high body temperature.
- Threats: Many people reported feeling threatened by illness, insects (as mentioned above), or even terrorists.
3.3 How do Nightmares and Fever Dreams Differ?
Now, I agree that they both can be extremely terrifying and frightening but they aren’t completely the same.
Fever dreams are caused due to fevers, while nightmares can be the result of many factors such as stress, anxiety, or trauma. Many sleep disorders can also cause nightmares. But both of them affect sleep quality.
4. Lucid and Fever Dreams
There are many similarities between fever dreams and lucid dreams. In both cases, the person can recall their most recent fever dreams/lucid dreams. And both of them occur during the REM stage.
The difference lies in the fact that only in fever dreams, the body temperature is above normal. And lucid dreams aren’t always disturbing dreams. Another difference is that lucid dreams can be controlled by you, and can even be used to your benefit, for creative purposes or to fight off phobias. But the same does not apply to fever dreams.
5. COVID-19 and Fever Dreams
Many people were affected by the COVID-19 virus in the past two years. The thing to keep in mind is that to fight the virus, the core temperature of our body increases. Hence, the dreams that we may have had during this period, may have been fever dreams.
6. Why do Fever Dreams occur?
While the precise answer of this question is still majorly unknown, there are a few proposed theories.
We know that a fever affects the normal functioning of our brain. Hence this causes it to produce these unpleasant dreams.
Also, there’s the ‘Continuity Hypothesis’ which states that dreams are a continued reflection of our everyday life. Combine the fact that you’ve had a fever and been resting all day and already impaired the functioning of your brain. These contributing factors could cause fever dreams to occur.
7. Can You Prevent Fever Dreams?
There’s no guide or manual available that’ll help you avoid a fever dream. But it can be controlled by following some simple general rules-
- Block out the negativity- While this is good advice in general, this is particularly helpful to prevent fever dreams. Try watching a sitcom or a romantic comedy instead of that graphic action movie before going to bed. Because the dreams you dream may be a continuation of that movie you just watched. So try winding down your day with something light and nice.
- Ensure the environment is perfect- Turn down the bright lights and make sure there’s not too much noise around you when you’re sleeping. All of this ensures you are giving your body a chance to get a peaceful night of sleep, with normal dreams.
- Your bed should be comfortable- It may cost a little more but it’ll be beneficial for you in the long run. Buy a good mattress. You don’t want to be tossing and turning all night, especially when you have a fever. To ensure you get some quality sleep, find a mattress that suits you.
- All leads back to your gut- Eat foods that are light and go easy on your stomach. It doesn’t help anyone if you’re stomach is going to be grumbling and angry all night.
If you’re a parent and your child experiences fever dreams, try to calm them down after they’ve most likely awoken from a fever dream. So when they do, hold their hand and be gentle with them and don’t shout or stress them out even more.
But a sure shot way to not get fever dreams, is to prevent fevers, right? So be sure to take medications like ibuprofen (acetaminophen) or aspirin and drink plenty of fluids in case you feel yourself getting sick.
The question, “What is a fever dream” is still not answered in detail, and to answer it properly, more research needs to be done. But one thing is clear, it’s nothing to be frightened off or jaded by. In the end, they are just dreams. They’ll last a while, not forever. They may seem hellish at the moment of course but remember that you’ll wake up from it eventually.
For more on different types of dreams, check out this article.