And the dreams go on and on and on
April 12, 2010 4:48 AM   Subscribe

I have telescopic dreams once in a while - dreaming something only to realise that I'm dreaming, "wake up" in another dream, then sometimes switching back to the first dream or "waking up" to another dream entirely. They freak me out quite a bit as I'm never quite sure if or when I'm really awake. Why do these dreams happen? Is anything the matter?

The telescopic dreams I have tend to fall under 2 varieties:

a) I dream that I'm waking up, getting out of bed, doing the usual things, etc. Then something strikes me as off - something subtle but surreal, like the mirror melting or something who can't possibly be my housemate living with me. I then "wake up" back in my bed, get out of bed, doing the usual things...then again something surreal but different happens. This happens in a chain of about 5-6 "dreams", and at one point I try to force myself awake but can't due to sleep paralysis. When I finally do get myself awake (for real) it takes me a moment to work out whether it's a dream or reality.

b) The telescopic dream alluded to in the linked SMBC comic, where I'm alternating between two dreams, claiming each time that "this" is "real" and the other was a dream. These happen less often and tend to be less realistic (though I haven't had one with lobster heads).

In both types of dreams I'm lucid enough to notice the dreaming, and that something's off, but I don't tend to realise that I can control how the dream goes. I can think in-dream "Oh, this can't be right, So and So isn't a girl" or something boringly factual, but it never occurs to me to actively change the dream. The main difference between the dreams and real life is almost like a question of HD versus normal screen resolution; it looks different.

These dreams sometime distress me upon waking, as it makes me question my concept of reality. Sometimes I feel like I will be stuck in a dream and never wake up. Do these dreams actually indicate some type of health issue? Asides from mild depression & anxiety I don't have any other underlying health issues, though my sleeping patterns are a little messed up. I can't recall any specific patterns to these dreams in terms of what happens in my life when I dream them, though the perpetual-waking-up dreams do tend to happen when I've had an afternoon nap.

The usual methods of knowing I'm in a dream don't quite work - I can feel pain and still not wake up, and quite a few of my dreams involve clearly reading some sort of document. I'm ambivalent on whether dreams are merely neurological background processing, psychological, travel to the astral worlds, meaningful, meaningless.

Do I have anything to worry about? Do they reflect some issue with my brain? Or are these dreams normal?
posted by divabat to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Anecdotally, I've had dreams like this occasionally, as have all of my immediate family and my friends. We all find them slightly disturbing as well, for the same reasons you do. They're weird enough that we all talk about them, which is how I know it happens to all these other people in my life.

One thing about dreams is, for me anyway, whatever is on my mind a lot during the day, I will often end up dreaming about it. So if these type of dreams are concerning you, and you're thinking about them a lot, that just might be the reason why they keep happening. Dreaming about dreaming, in a sense.
posted by FishBike at 5:41 AM on April 12, 2010

Haven't had one for a while, but I have had these as well. The most vivid one involved my father being killed by being swept out to sea off some rocks, followed by me dreaming that I'd woken up and the drowning incident was just a bad dream. I dreamed that I sat up in bed, thinking 'gee, I'm glad that was just a dream' then the dream phone rang and my mother called me to tell me how much she missed my dad. This cycle repeated itself a few more times before I finally woke up for real, very shaken and upset. Each iteration of the dream was consistent in (a) believing the previous iteration to be a dream and (b) believing that the current experience was in fact real.

What does it all mean? I've spoken to friends of who are psychiatrists and whilst they are fascinated by the description, have never thought anything sinister of it. As to your question, 'are these dreams normal', I think the terms 'normal' and 'dreams' don't really belong together. From what I can gather, these dreams are unusual, but that's about it.

Perhaps this is a prosaic way of looking at it, but I tend not to ask what dreams 'mean' any more than I would ask what a screwdriver or a hammer 'means'. They are all tools which may have a place in your life or they may not. Use or discard as you will.

Me? I called my dad and told him how much I loved him.
posted by tim_in_oz at 5:43 AM on April 12, 2010

Funny, they sound like my deja vu. I'll get the sense of deja vu, then feel like I've had that sense of deja vu before about the exact same thing, then feel I'd had that experience before about the exact same thing too, etc. I've had it up to 6 times deep before. Purely by accident, while delving into a cause for my migraines, we discovered it means my potassium levels are too low and I'm having petit mal seizures in my left temporal lobe. There's nothing disabling about them, it's just a little funny when it happens and I make a note to eat an orange or banana soon.
posted by jwells at 5:44 AM on April 12, 2010 [4 favorites]

much of what you describe sounds like normal REM sleep - REM sleep features vivid imagery & moments of intense lucidity - it also involves a completely normal bodily paralysis (called REM atonia) - some theorize that REM sleep is where we process alot of memory and many report their dreams during REM to be about familiar and everyday things, quite often events that had happened the prior day

generally, most folks go through a few periods of REM sleep every night - if your sleep patterns are messed up, you may be experiencing more frequent episodes of REM

there's also sleep paralysis, which it sounds like you may be familiar with - it is related to REM sleep, but involves more intense experiences of being awake while not being able to move one's body - like REM sleep, it is also accompanied by vivid imagery, and can manifest as waking hallucinations as well - episodes can last for several minutes (& can feel like much longer) and are often characterized by feelings of anxiety and being trapped

for what it's worth, i have had these kinds of dreams as well and have experienced various levels of sleep paralysis every now & then - they definitely can be disturbing and often leave me feeling quite shaken (emotionally as well as ontologically) - so i can't say if the dreams themselves are "normal" but i think your reaction to them is pretty normal

if you're really concerned about whether these reflect an actual organic or psychological disorder, i would talk to a doctor
posted by jammy at 5:57 AM on April 12, 2010

I always have very vivid, strange dreams (it's like going to the movies every night), and occasionally the telescoping dreams you describe. They've never particularly bothered me, but while in therapy for something else, I did find discussing a dream with the therapist to be of immense benefit to me. I'm definitely not one of those people who believe that every dream Means Something in a cosmic sense, but in this case, the therapist helped me uncover something that happened in my dream which solved my real life problem perfectly.

If you're very concerned, I'd check with a doctor first (to rule out anything neurological) and then try a few therapy sessions wherein you discuss your dreams. Otherwise, enjoy the fact that you do dream vividly--apparently some people dream only in black and white, or without sound or they can't do things like read in their dreams.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:09 AM on April 12, 2010

There's a name for those? I used to get long chains of them, usually in conjunction with dreams about my teeth falling out. Like you, I would realize I was dreaming mid-dream, but not be able to do anything about it, and then I'd "wake up" but still be dreaming, rinse and repeat.

Eventually, somehow, my subconscious got to the point where I learned to resolve the problem of my teeth falling out in the dream - either I'd think, "hey, I'm dreaming, no need to panic about my teeth," and go on, or I'd go to the dentist (the real fear in my dreams was anyone discovering that my teeth had fallen out). I suspect it's fairly common for people with recurring dreams to gradually solve them after multiple iterations of the dream, in a Groundhog Day sort of way. My armchair totally-not-professional opinion is that, since you're becoming somewhat lucid in the dreams, you're on your way to figuring out how to deal with them.

I'd say it's normal, but since your dreams are combined with sleep paralysis, it might be worth seeing a doctor. I don't know if it's necessarily a symptom of anything, but sleep paralysis can be really terrifying. Additionally, are you taking (or forgetting to take) any medications? I used to take an antidepressant that had really vivid dreams as a side effect, and really awful sleep paralysis as an effect of discontinuation.
posted by Metroid Baby at 6:12 AM on April 12, 2010

I have these all the time. I used to Lucid Dream a. lot. and would sometimes force myself to wake-up if the dream was getting too scary or strange. I noticed that as I was making myself wake up, the dream would rapidly shift - telescope - to ANOTHER dream, usually more calm and pleasant. I figured my subconscious was doing everything it could to keep me asleep to finish the REM cycle.
posted by The Whelk at 6:18 AM on April 12, 2010

I used to have these kinds of dreams fairly often when I was going to school and working full time, and frequently had to put in lots of overtime at work and still get my school work done. I'd dream I was getting up, getting dressed, brushing my teeth, and then wake up still in bed. Sometimes I'd dream I was working on a paper I had due, then wake up and realize I'd been dreaming, and the solution I'd dreamed up was gibberish. (I can't write or do math very well when I'm sleeping, apparently.) And, yes, it is disorienting.

I think I'd start to wake up, then fall asleep again and dream about the things I needed to get up and be doing.

I have lucid dreams too occasionally, still, and I had them before, but that's different.

Are you under a lot of stress? Are you getting enough sleep?
posted by nangar at 6:32 AM on April 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's happened to me once or twice. I have a theory that it's a symptom of watching too many movies/TV shows where people "wake up" and then ACTUALLY wake up.
posted by AugieAugustus at 7:15 AM on April 12, 2010

Best answer: It sounds like you're worrying a bit about your sanity. And it occurs to me that this is the sort of dream that might be precipitated by worrying about your sanity. After all, in a way it's "about" the question of whether you can tell what's real anymore, no?

You might start with the hypothesis that this is like erectile dysfunction, and the less you worry about it, the less it'll happen to you. See where that gets you.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:40 AM on April 12, 2010

For what it is worth, I have no strong recollection of lucid dreams where they telescope indefinitely. Same with Paralysis. I know that these have happened a few times, but I can't remember it distinctly. At least, not enough that I woke up disturbed or worried about either of these things.

Now I have had very vivid dreams where the content was disturbing, however my dreams almost always are only remember-able (if that's a word) on nights where I am suddenly awoken or have been restless due to pain, noise, stress, something else. This is probably due to my morning pattern being either to A) get up and immediately race to work/school (no time for reflection) B) Sleep in way too much so my REM cycle is "covered" by shorter light sleep so again I have no time to reflect.

From what I know of "sleep science" this is normal. Usually people forget their dreams unless they wake up in the middle of it, at which point their brain remembers the point where they were and "works backwards" as it were to fill in the rest with whatever active thoughts you have had during the day (again, this may be pseudoscience or my misunderstanding YMMV).

I'll leave it to other sleep scientists to say if my pattern is healthy or not, but from what little I know about sleep I believe this (only able to remember dreams when slightly discomforted or external noise etc) can be helpful in your case.

1) look for and try to address stress/etc that might be impacting your sleep
2) Depending on your living situation (live w/ people, live in city, old house, etc) there may be routine noises in the night or something that are causing your to wake slightly, thus triggering the lucid dream about waking up, but then fall back asleep, thus letting the REM cycle start again. Maybe there is a succession of them most nights causing the telescoping?

If you have the time and a few days to return to your normal sleep cycle maybe stay up all night in your room reading a book and listen for any strange sounds etc? Just a thought. For instance where I used to live the trash guys were really really noisy, but I always (apparently) slept right through them because it was 4am or whatever. Again, not a sleep-scientist, YMMV.

Also, you may like the movie Waking Life, to feed those quasi philosophical questions.
posted by DetonatedManiac at 7:58 AM on April 12, 2010

In case it helps: I used to get very frequent sleep paralysis until I stopped sleeping on my back. I sleep on my side now and it hardly ever happens.
posted by sallybrown at 8:15 AM on April 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Do you sleep lightly? Have a snooze alarm? I find my "I'm up, doing normal things, with Cthuhlu" dreams occur right about when I should be up. I've never had them that layered, though.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 9:03 AM on April 12, 2010

These dreams sometime distress me upon waking, as it makes me question my concept of reality.

But think of it this way: you've never thought you were dreaming during your waking life, right? (if so, you should see a doctor.) So anytime you think, "Oh, this isn't right, I must be dreaming . . . " you ARE dreaming, period.

As far as the normal methods of knowing you're dreaming, can you yell or scream in dreams? I absolutely cannot, and I think that's normal. So if I'm having an upsetting dream and I think it's a dream, I try to scream. If it comes out "eh. eh." I know I'm dreaming. If I really to be woken up, I keep "screaming" as hard and as long as I can. Eventually my husband will shake me and I'll wake up. To him it sounds like I'm whimpering and he knows I'm having a nightmare.

Like sallybrown, I can't sleep on my back without experiencing sleep paralysis and nightmares, so I try not to fall asleep that way.
posted by peep at 10:20 AM on April 12, 2010

Realizing that something is a dream has almost always been a prelude to stopping dreaming and waking up for me.

I would guess that you are experiencing what happens when the wake-up procedure is initiated, but then fails because the dream state ignores the signal to quit (application not responding, if you will). The wake-up procedure then reloads and tries again-- and again if necessary.

This would seem to me to have a family resemblance to the kind of things that happen to some people with OCD who know they turned off the iron, for example, but can't stop themselves from checking again and again, presumably because the part of the brain that worries about stuff like that refuses to quit.
posted by jamjam at 12:04 PM on April 12, 2010

I heard a BBC radio documentary on false awakening, as this commonly known, where one of the scientists types they interviewed claimed the way to tell if you are dreaming is to switch on a light bulb, when you are dreaming the light bulb will only shine dimly.

Another handy trick to break sleep paralysis is to roll sideways (in your dream): sleep paralysis creates the sensation that you can't rise upwards, but for some reason it doesn't stop you rolling over/sideways, when you do this (or at least do it in your dream) it breaks the sensation of sleep paralysis.

I've experienced both false awakening and sleep paralysis, especially, a lot over the years, (along with related phenomenon such as hypnogogic hallucinations) and the do seem tied together. It seems some people have a predisposition to these but I don't think its a sign on any external underlying cause particularly. However there is a clear connection between these phenomenon and disrupted sleep patterns so this is most likely the direct cause and is what needs to be tackled (depression and anxiety are linked to disrupted sleep).

It's possible to train yourself to be able to distinguish when you are dreaming. I did this during an extended period of recurring sleep paralysis. It is worth noting that these phenomena are also associated with lucid dreaming and it is possible to engage in conscious observation and questioning during these states. We tend to think of the states of sleep and consciousness as a binary opposition (this is how we normally experience them) but I think it is better to envision them as adjacent states. Normally the two are distinct but with false awakening and the like they overlap so that we experience sleep while still retaining (or gaining) consciousness. So that in sleep paralysis, for instance, we are experiencing a perfectly normal loss of voluntary control of movement, but one we are not usually conscious of. it is not surprising we might freak out and experience this as paralysis, but it's not that helpful either. So I've trained myself to mentally step back and ask myself what's going on ( a useful habit in waking life as well) —paying particular attention to emotional states— so that I now recognize sleep paralysis for what it is and I don't experience any of the panic or unpleasantness. In fact it disappears pretty much as soon as I'm conscious of what it is — we can control dreams* if we are conscious during them (a.k.a lucid dreaming) so it is possible to step out of any particular dream.

I did this recently during a false awakening. I had to get up a 4am to go the airport, and not altogether surprisingly I dreamed I had woken up, was late, was rushing around trying to pack etc. As I started to feel the rising uncontrollable panic I recognized that this must be a dream, because that is the only time I experience panic in that way, so I was able to step out of it.

How I learned to do this is a combination of things.

Learning to realize that I was conscious in these states and could control my actions.

Following on from this learning to step back and observe/question.

Learning triggers that prompted this behaviour: in particular there are certain emotional states that I only ever really experience when dreaming. It seems when we are dreaming wee experience our 'primitive' emotions, fear, panic etc. in a much more direct and unfettered way than we do when we awake so through practice experiencing them is associated with a particular response.

I did this partly through tricks in sleep, such as thr rolling sideways, partly through observation and reflection after waking that i was then able to carry through back into sleep.

It's possibler to practice lucid dreaming. Once you become directly aware that you are conscious during dreaming (conscious of consciousness rather than just being conscious) once it becomes easier to repeat , and its just practice at this point. I had experimented with lucid dreaming before I set out to systematically control sleep paralysis but when I did the rolling sideways trick was very useful (it was what I started out with). It is probably easier when you are relaxed though, you might try associating the point at which you switch dreams with becoming aware you are conscious. When you awake after one of these experiences cast your mind back over what happened and build a picture of what exactly you felt and experienced at that point to help fix it in your memory. I did something similar with sleep paralysis and soon enough recognizing what it was became easier and that opened up enough space that I could recognize I was conscious and do something about it.
posted by tallus at 1:36 PM on April 12, 2010

Response by poster: I've had vivid surreal dreams ever since I was a kid (one time last year I was surprised to have a dream that was so banal) but my medication (Effexor-XR) could be contributing to it, though I have had telescopic dreams before I went on that meds. They did appear more often after I was diagnosed with depression & panic disorder, so that could be a factor.

I can lucid dream, but when I'm lucid dreaming I'm either following through with the experience (so pretty much exploring my setting - pretty cool and floaty) or I know that it's a dream but it never occurs to me to change anything. The content itself isn't usually disturbing; it's the idea that I'm not sure when I'm actually awake, or that I could get stuck in "dreamland" like that one Buffy episode where they hinted that her adventures are really all in her head. nebulawindphone hit on something with the worry about my sanity.
posted by divabat at 2:22 PM on April 12, 2010

(one time last year I was surprised to have a dream that was so banal)

I've had those dreams since I was in high school (at least.)

Yeah, my dreams tend to be about turning off the alarm, doing homework, whatever.

This is my creative side faking out my responsible side.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 5:45 PM on April 12, 2010

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