The subtle connection between sleep and dreaming is an enigma despite being researched by scientists for ages. Why does your figment of imagination go awry when you are unwell?
Have you ever tried to relate your thought processes and feelings while you are ill? The obvious answer for many of you would be a ‘No’. Right?
Many times we dream about weird images that are confusing and can make us feel overwhelmed. This happens when our body temperature is elevated and we experience a bout of sickness.
Such disturbing and unpleasant experiences are known as fever dreams. The dreamer may wake up feeling unsettled and uncomfortable beyond words.
Are you unwell and down with a viral infection? Then read on to know the details of these strange dream meanings in scientific literature.
What is a Fever Dream?
Fever dreams are emotionally intense, bizarre nocturnal visions that are caused by elevated body temperature due to a viral or bacterial infection. Such dreams symbolize repressed anger, a feeling of being disoriented, poor clarity etc.
We all have experienced a fever in our daily living; while battling an infection caused by a pathogen in our body. Science backed research findings have indicated that dreams are more bizarre in times of an illness.
It involves a series of thoughts, feelings, and mental sensations that symbolize various unpleasant and disappointing experiences of our waking life.
The dream often holds an unconscious element of fear, insecurity, and personal inadequacy of the dreamer. Whenever the body temperature rises and goes beyond 99 degrees Fahrenheit, it is considered a rise.
This raised temperature is a defense mechanism that the body uses to combat the illness and helps a way towards recovery.
Usually fever dreams occur in high body temperatures that are above 100.4 degrees F; and you are experiencing a fever with other bodily symptoms such as chills, weakness, body ache, headache that usually accompanies a sickness.
High fever symptoms can be caused because of:
- A viral or bacterial infection
- Too much heat accumulation in the body due to hot weather
- Inflammation or soreness along with pain in certain parts of the body
- Tumor or fibroids
- Side effects of certain drugs such as antibiotics
- Low immunity leading to cold and cough
- Seasonal flu
To be more precise, fever is not a disease by itself. Rather it is our immune system’s response to the illness. When the body fights the infection and tries to heal the system from within, we get a fever. The excessive heat generated in the body stops the pathogen from replicating further.
Nature of Fever Dreams
Fever dreams are reported as extremely strange ones that are usually narratives from the unconscious mind.
It represents the memories, images, thoughts, and feelings that are embedded in the unconscious realm and becomes active only when the body is tired and exhausted during an illness.
These are strange nightmares that the dreamer feels emotionally intense and worrisome. Most of the reported fever dreams included scary themes where fear was the key element. We all know that during an illness, the body reacts differently and thus the regular sleep pattern can get affected.
When body temperature ranges from 100.4 to 102 degrees F, the excessive heat generated inside the body puts you in a restless and anxious state of mind.
You may start to feel agitated and overwhelmed at the slightest triggers around you. The most obvious characteristics of such dreams are:
- Weird and strange dream themes
- Emotionally toned
- Presence of fearful elements in the dream content
- Inner peace of the dreamer is at stake
- Feelings of insecurity prevails
- Lack of awareness of what the dreamer just saw
- Odd and intense images that signals a cognitive distortion
- Mood swings
- Anger outbursts for no obvious reason
Scientific Studies Supporting Fever Dreams
Fever dreams are intense, emotionally charged up nightmares that are negative and occur as a possible outcome of fever. Multiple studies on sleep and dreaming have indicated that fever dreams are vivid experiences that can affect cognitive functioning while sleeping.
Some dreamers who experienced fever dreams never recall their dream content but others can even recall the theme years.
Fever dreams may occur during any sleep stage but it is most prevalent during the REM stage sleep (Rapid Eye Movement sleep). It has been found that people who wake up after an episode of REM sleep could easily recall dreams.
As the cognitive theorists claim that dreams convey messages of our waking life, fever dreams are not an exception. It also contains frightening, scary, and unsettling experiences of our daily life that get conveyed through a subconscious mind during a sleep state.
In a 2013 study on “Patient fever symptom experiences”, scientists have found that fever causes nightmares that are extremely fearful and mysterious.
From this study 11 dream themes emerged and participants who recalled dreaming reported having sweating, non-specific bodily sensations, headaches, achiness, and gastrointestinal problems.
In a 1968 study, psychologists studied the effects of fever on memory and cognition. They found that dream recall of fever nights (free recall in the morning) is lower than recall after a recovery night.
Thus the data suggests that ability to recall decreases because of high body temperature. (Ref: Effects of fever on sleep and dream patterns – Karacan et al 1968). Another similar study was done by Smith, 2012a that suggests that fever dreams can affect encoding of new information, speed of working memory, and semantic processing.
These are intense dreams that also reflect the real life experiences of the dreamer. The fear induced element in the dream theme are actual narratives of events the dreamer has experienced in waking life.
The negative emotions, concerns, thoughts, and unhealthy experiences of waking life gets portrayed in the dream theme, when the body is sick and tired. (Ref: Donshoff G.W 2003 – The scientific study of dreams: Neural networks, cognitive development and content analysis. Washington DC: American Psychological Association)
Fever Dream Symptoms
When you dream of strange scenarios, it elicits negative responses after waking up. But the good news is, fever dreams are not long lasting. They tend to get better as the body heals from the illness and starts functioning normally.
The typical symptoms of fever dreams are:
- Heightened emotional instability
- Negative thoughts and disturbing images of the past
- Recurring dreams of childhood memories that were toxic and painful
- Hallucinations after waking up (visual images that are not present)
- Spatial distortions can occur while sleeping such as the person may see moving walls, melting of objects, falling from a cliff, snowy dreams, or scary scenes of murder etc.
- Participants of research work on fever dreams have reported that they saw insects biting them, or wild animals chasing them etc.
- The usual themes of such dreams are images of fire, lava, or even blood
- Feeling of being overheated
- Lack of social interaction by the dreamer because they remain preoccupied with negative thoughts
- Distorted figures of humans with long hands and legs (typical example of distorted cognitive functioning while having a fever)
- Unfamiliar and scary landscapes where dreamer may find themselves wandering aimlessly
- Claustrophobia is common symptom where dreamers may feel choked and unable to breathe
- Scary images of darkness and weird sounds
The symptoms of fever dreams are extremely overwhelming and jarring and the person may have difficulty falling asleep again after such a strange nightmare.
What fever dreams are like?
Fever dreams are known for being bizarre and fearful. It can baffle the dreamer in no time. Being emotionally toned and full of negative thoughts attached with it, fever dreams symbolize stress and worries.
In a 2016 retrospective study done on “bizarreness in fever dreams: A questionnaire study” by M. Schredi, Oliver Kuster and Anne-Devssa and published in the International Journal of Dream Research, asked 62 participants about how their fever dreams looked.
The participants reported that their fever dreams were scary nightmares with weird scenes that they have never experienced before. The dream was negatively toned and included a lot of anxiety and fear in the minds of the dreamer.
This study was the first that indicated fever dreams as bizarre experiences that can affect the cognitive functioning of the sleeping brain (Schredi, 20i6) To quote him, “The elevated body temperature messes up with the brain’s ability to think; or the brain is not functioning properly during a high fever.”
Types of fever dream
There are a few common types of dream that can accompany a fever and have been identified by participants in scientific studies in vivid dreams related to fever and sickness.
1. Heat or Fire imagery
In most of the content in fever dreams, people reported seeing fire. The fire may be a forest fire, lava from volcanoes, or even a heat wave. This happens because the brain is wired up and identifies the body heat as real.
2. Memories of stressful life events
Fever dreams are usually spooky and cause a lot of unease and fear. It’s actually a sneak peek to those fearful and repressed thoughts of childhood that remained undercover in the unconscious realm of the dreamer.
Some people reported their personal information during a fever that they would have otherwise not done, they even visited childhood nightmares depicting scenes of violence, abuse, and maltreatment.
The images were hurtful and wounded; that induced fear and excessive worries. They also reported their unfavorable childhood images again showing up in adulthood.
The common fever dreams are accident scenes, death, scenes of sexual abuse. The dreams are negative and lead to sadness and depression as well.
A general uncomfortable feeling pervaded in their ‘psyche’ that kept recurring whenever the body temperature shot up above normal levels.
3. Scary elements in the dream theme
Fever dream scenarios are negative dreams that are immensely scary, weird, and unusual. People may experience alien creatures, different environments, and darkness with a feeling of being stuck and lost in bewilderment.
Emotional component of a fever dream
Being emotionally high, fever dreams symbolizes heated emotions that can burn you from within. It represents anger, fury, resentments, frustration and all those heated up states of human ‘psyche’ that usually gets repressed in the unconscious mind and never gets a chance to expose in waking life; primarily because of societal pressure.
These dreams are not like regular dreams that can even consist of positive emotions without any negative tone in them. Fever dreams always make the dreamer feel awkward and uncomfortable.
Whenever you are sick, the mind and body starts working differently than normal and you may feel restless, tired, and overwhelmed. Thus it is important that you take a closer look at what’s stressing you in reality.
Maybe you are neglecting an aspect of waking life that needs more focus and awareness. You need to go through a process of emotional healing and cleansing.
If you feel accused and threatened about something in real-life, try to resolve the issue otherwise the emotions will keep recurring in the dream.
In fever dreams, the chills of being in a state of high temperature signifies loneliness, terror, suffering, feeling of being stuck and confined with no clue of how to move about in life. Thus fever dreams are nightmarish experiences beyond a doubt.
Causes of fever dreams
The obvious question that may come to your mind is why does a fever dream happen in the first place? What are the probable reasons behind such a nightmare? Is it not annoying to see such disturbing images out of nowhere?
Though the exact reasons for fever dreams are not really known or are still under research scanner. Let us study the likely causes of fever dreams in this section of the article.
Thermoregulation is a process by which the body naturally regulates the body temperature under normal circumstances. The process keeps the body warmth at an optimal level for proper functioning of the organs.
During a viral or bacterial infection, the normal body temperature shoots up causing a fever. Fever is a natural immune response that signifies that the body is fighting and recovering from an illness.
The raised body temperature affects the quality of sleep. The impaired thermoregulation causes insomnia, somatic sensations of pain and lethargy; along with psychological restlessness, bouts of nervousness, anxiety, and overall discomfort.
Research studies have shown that fever dreams are caused due to heating up of the body; and as such the cognitive functioning of the brain gets hampered. Too much heat generation in the body leads to distortion in thought and memory.
However, during a REM sleep, thermoregulation is less effective and as such most fever dreams occur in this stage. The hypothalamus is responsible for temperature regulation.
When you have a fever, the hypothalamus raises the body heat and produces the immune response to fight the illness. Thus, the main cause of fever dream as cited by research findings happens to be a surge in body temperature and heat generation.
2. Stressful life events
Stress can cause hyperarousal of the brain cells. It upsets the normal sleep function by disrupting the balance between sleep and wakefulness.
Research findings showed that being stressed out is related to poor sleep because it generates real feelings of anxiety and nervousness often beyond control. Stress is something that disrupts the normal functioning of the brain.
It causes sleep disturbances and deprivation, difficulty in falling asleep and staying asleep throughout the night. During a fever dream the general discomfort caused in the body due to chills and aches disrupt sleep. It also creates a psychological feeling of numbness and a void feeling.
The dreamer may feel confused and do not know whether it’s a dream or they are in a conscious state of being. Fever dreams symbolize stressful images of waking life.
The possible clues given by the dreamers’ show that they were dreaming about some childhood incidents, often grief-stricken and anxiety prone. The dream was scary because they felt sad after seeing such an image.
3. Poor sleep health
Sleep is primarily composed of two states; NREM sleep (Non-rapid Eye Movement Stage) and REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement stage). Though NREM sleep covers most of the night sleep, we do get intermittent REM sleep also.
In the REM stage, sleep sets into a stage of arousal and it has a great impact on your psychological health. Here, breathing and heart rate goes up and it is usually compared to a stage of wakefulness.
Due to this hyper-arousal, most of the dreams occur in this stage. During fever, you may wake up several times in the night and the brain finds it difficult to maintain an optimal temperature and functioning. Thus, dreaming about weird images is not uncommon.
4. Continuity hypothesis
Research studies have claimed that fever dreams like many other types of dreaming follow the theory of continuity hypothesis. The theory means that fever dreams are intense and negative because it carries the negative emotions associated with various painful experiences of the dreamer’s waking life.
Reichenberg et.al, 2001 showed that “negatively toned dreams might reflect negative waking emotions.” In another study published in 2021, findings suggest that fever dreams are scarier, attached with negative emotions as compared to normal dreams.
This shows that fever dreams continuously carry the negative element into the subconscious state. It reflects the not so good experiences of everyday life. The dreams can cause irritability and confusion after waking up.
How to stop fever dreams?
There is no full proof and one size fits all methods to stop fever dreams. Some theorists believe that controlling the body temperature may help to reduce the occurrence of such dreams.
Usually the pattern of fever dreams are such that it happens involuntarily; you cannot do much to prevent or control it.
As high temperature disrupts the cognitive functioning of the brain, the dream themes can recur and keep coming back unless the underlying health issue is cured and you get better overtime.
The first line of treatment is to reduce the fever and improve the health condition. Few self-help remedies to reduce the occurrence of fever dreams are:
1. Proper hydration
You are to increase the fluid intake and stay hydrated always during an illness. This helps to keep the body cool and an optimal temperature can be maintained for healthy functioning of the body and mind.
2. Healthy diet
If you are sick and down with high fever, you should eat a healthy diet that is easy on the stomach and energy boosters as well.
Get enough rest whenever possible. If your night sleep is disrupted because of a raised body temperature, you may try sleeping at some other time during the day as well; whenever feeling tired or fatigued. Try to follow a biphasic sleep pattern.
A good amount of sleep helps the body to recover from the illness. It also keeps the cognitive impairment away as you may feel emotionally balanced and at peace with yourself.
You may take medication to lower down the fever as prescribed by the physician.
5. Warm bath
In times of high fever, one may try to have a lukewarm bath to thermo regulate the body heat at appropriate levels in a natural way.
6. Stress at bay
Fever dreams can be reduced if you can stay cool and keep your stress triggers away from you. When you are not well, it is advisable to stay aloof from anxious situations. It helps to remove negative thoughts and feelings and makes you feel better.
7. Build healthy bonds
You should connect with positive people who will help you to recover well. They will emanate positive vibes around you and you will feel positive and in tune with your good emotions also.
8. Follow a healthy lifestyle
You should follow a healthy lifestyle with a preset routine when you are unwell. A routine helps your body to recover well from an illness.
It energizes the body and heals it from within. When you live a balanced life, fever dreams may not bother you that much and you may know the right art of dealing with it.
Fever dreams Vs Lucid dreams
Though both fever dreams and lucid dreams show high recall value and mostly occur during REM stage of sleep; when the brain is very active; they still have some differences. Most research findings do suggest the following differences between the two.
|Fever Dreams||Lucid Dreams|
|Fever dreams occur due to fever and almost always carry a negative connotation.||Lucid dreaming are not linked to fever|
|Creates an uneasy and anxious feeling||It doesn’t always create an anxious and restless feeling|
|It happens spontaneously without the control of the dreamer||Lucid dreams occur when a person is aware that they are sleeping and within a dream state. Thus sometimes they are able to control their dreams|
Fever dreams and Nightmares – Are they same?
Though fever dreams and nightmares are scary dream themes and induce a lot of fear and emotional suffering, they are not the same.
|Fever dream occurs as a result of fever.||Nightmares are not related to any external or physical factors. They can just happen as a figment of an imaginative mind.|
|It is caused due to excessive heat in the body that leads to cognitive distortions and dreaming.||Nightmares can occur due to stress and anxiety or sleep disorders like sleep apnea and narcolepsy.|
Why are fever dreams always bad?
Fever dreams are usually stressful and uncomfortable because they are strange and meaningless as far as the weird content present in the dream theme is concerned. As the body is sick and tired due to fever, the mind also appears fatigued and sick.
Such dreams contain emotional images of waking life and the worst and painful experiences that the dreamer usually tries to avoid and ignore.
Thus these dreams are considered bad and unpleasant. Fever dreams are nightmares that are caused by high body temperature and this elevation in body heat affects cognition and emotions in undesirable ways.
The good news is that fever dreams are short and subsides as the body heals.
How long does a fever dream last?
Though fever dreams are upsetting, yet not harmful at all. These dream themes often go away as the body recovers from the illness.
When the infection dies out, the body starts its usual process of thermoregulation (optimum heat levels) and the brain also gets back to its routine workings.
The dreaming happens for a short duration of a few days; maybe for 3 to 5 days until the body recovers from the infection.
Can you get more nightmares when you are unwell?
If you are down with a viral infection, it may become difficult to sleep well due to high temperatures, body aches, headaches, or a general ailment. Disturbed sleep schedule brings back images from the unconscious mind and the person starts dreaming about unusual and weird things.
The tired mind and body fatigue may lead to more nightmares than under usual circumstances but this is still under the scanner and more scientific evidence is required to substantiate the claim in coming times.
The video link given below describes the fever dreams in detail. Do check out.
Fever dreams are puzzling, peculiar, and uncanny occurrences that also symbolizes the deep-seated conflicts and poor emotional mastery of the dreamer. The mystifying nature of the dream images may make you go awry at times.
The health of the body and the health of mind are interconnected. When you are not well, it is advisable to stay calm and balance your negative emotions as much as possible. The positive thoughts allow the healing process to work well.
It actually helps you to become who you are. As the saying goes “When you’re happy, relaxed, and free of stress, the body can accomplish amazing, even miraculous feats of self-repair.” – Lissa Rankin
Chandrani is a former school psychologist and teacher by profession. She is a post graduate in Applied psychology with focus in clinical and health domains. Her passion for writing, kindled during school days have now become a full time freelancing endeavor. For her, writing is cathartic and keeps her mentally agile. Her lovable niches includes psychology, parenting, spirituality, lifestyle, and love and relationships. Her work depicts her perspectives about various experiences that she came across; unleashed a richer and deeper meaning of life. "Let me leave an aftertaste in the minds of few, if not many who need to find a path of absolute bliss, happiness, and inner peace."