Why do we have sex dreams?

Relationship therapist Zoe Williams at the health and lifestyle brand Gear Hungry presents the science behind romantic dreams, what they mean and whether they hold any meaning

During the past 12 months we’ve seen a rise in reports of re-occurring vivid dreams.  Whether it’s dreaming of an ex, being back at school and missing an exam, or falling from a great height, dreams can leave us discombobulated. According to Google trend data, the search term “what do sex dreams mean” has seen a 9,900 per cent rise within the last three months as people are starting to question the meaning behind them, and what effects they can have on our day to day lives. 

"The search term 'what do sex dreams mean' has seen a 9,900 per cent rise within the last three months"

“The majority of dreaming (90 per cent) takes place when we’re in a REM state of sleep, the fifth of the sleep stages that takes its name from the Rapid Eye Movement it produces. When we’re in this state, our brain is just as active as when we’re awake during the day, though scientists attribute the strangeness of your dreams to the fact that, chemically, our brain is completely rewired when we sleep. That’s not to say we’re a completely different person, or that our deepest, darkest secrets are suddenly laid bare. Think of it more as a hypnotherapy session in which the relaxed nature means that we combat problems and questions in an altered way.”

“The areas of the brain that are most active during REM are the ones that control our emotions, specifically the limbic system, which is responsible for creating and controlling both good and bad emotions. Compare this to the parts of brain that are least active—the frontal lobes, which are responsible for higher functioning activities and thought, and you now understand why our dreams can sometimes be erratic at best. During our time awake we combat problems with our frontal lobes, solving situations like a puzzle, but at night this part of the brain is ‘asleep’, and our sleep decisions reflect this.”

“Chemically speaking, oxytocin (the love hormone) takes centre stage when experiencing dreams of affection or sexual attraction. Hypothalamus, the nuclei that oversee the distribution of oxytocin is located close to the regions of the brain that monitors arousal, and more importantly, the sleep and awake states of the body. This is theorised as one of the main reasons oxytocin is so active during sleep. But that’s not to say it’s the only reason. Dreams are constantly up for debate and change, as our understanding of the human mind and what it does when asleep is ever shifting.”

What can sex dreams teach us?

Woman hugging man illustration

All dreams are complex, maddening, blurring and sometimes just plain illogical. Traversing the valuable from the pointless is, occasionally, an arduous task that can result in very little info for the amount of research you put in.

Dreaming about a sexual encounter doesn’t always mean you pine for the person, but it can be as simple as you find them attractive subconsciously (or in many cases, consciously). Where things get a bit more interesting is what type of sex dream you have with someone.

A dream involving an authority figure (teacher, boss) can indicate a desire for more control in your life—control that you don’t think you’re capable of giving yourself, or it could stem from a craving of attention that you don’t feel you’re currently getting. Or a sex dream involving a more adventurous type of sex that you would normally never imagine can indicate a person wanting to let go, and get out of their comfort zone, subconsciously desiring a life free from self-judgements. Not all dreams have conclusions though, so if you’re having a fancy about being on a date with a shark in Spain, maybe don’t waste time delving into your childhood for answers.

Are some sex dreams completely meaningless?

To someone who doesn’t take dreams seriously, all of them are meaningless. If you were to ignore your sex dreams and get on with your everyday life, you would be no worse off than you were before. But all dreams, especially ones that delve into our deepest subconscious fantasies, are there to be used, and help us improve our awake selves.

Nonetheless if you want to ignore the dream about making out with some guy you haven’t seen in 15 years, I think you’ll make it through the day just fine. With sex dreams, many of them can be connected to the fact that you were having lustful thoughts as you drifted off into sleep, or that a conversation or film you watched earlier is still on your mind.

What are some practical tips to help people start to learn from their sex dreams?

As with all dreams, the benefits of keeping a journal and writing all the details down are extremely helpful to understanding a connection. Every week, read through your entries and see if there’s a connection, a sign that your subconscious is trying to tell you something, over time you may even start to notice over patterns, like particular dreams occurring at certain times, or even recurring characters.

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