Acting Out Dreams Is Common Experience

Study Shows Men and Women Differ in Responding to Dreams

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on December 01, 2009
From the WebMD Archives

Dec. 1, 2009 -- Feeling scared after waking from a frightening dream or aroused after an erotic dream is extremely common among healthy young adults, according to a new study. But women and men may act out dream behaviors in different ways.

Researchers found 98% of young adults reported at least one acting out dream behavior at least rarely in the past year. The most commonly reported occurrence was related to fear after awakening from a scary dream.

The study also showed that women reported more speaking, crying, fear, and smiling or laughing after waking from a dream while men reported more sexual arousal after erotic dreams.

Researchers say acting out dream behaviors in this manner is normal and differs from REM sleep behavior disorder (RBD), which is a sleep disorder that can cause injury or sleep disruption.

"Normal episodes are usually extremely mild, for example, briefly jerking an arm or leg while waking up from a nightmare, once or twice a year," says researcher Tore Nielsen, PhD, professor of psychiatry at the Universite de Montreal in Canada, in a news release.

"This is far different from RBD cases, which are typically very intense, and might involve repeatedly flailing an arm or a leg or smashing into something in the middle of a dream, not waking up easily from it, with occurrences several times a month,” says Nielsen.

In the study, published in Sleep, researchers surveyed a total of 1,140 undergraduate students about whether or not they acted out dream behaviors.

The results showed nearly all of them experience at least one of seven common behaviors at least rarely in the past year.

Fear was the most commonly reported dream-related experience; nine in 10 said they have felt signs of fear in their body after awakening from a frightening dream. Sexual arousal was the second most common with 78% reporting that they had woken from an erotic dream to find they were sexually aroused.

Seventy-two percent said they had awakened from a happy dream to find they were smiling or laughing. Each of the following four dream-related behaviors was reported by more than 50% of those surveyed: talking, crying, acting out in an angry way (such as clenching a fist or kicking), or acting out other movements like waving or pointing.

Researchers say acting out dream behaviors may be related to particular personality traits or a genetic predisposition. But they say more study is needed to determine whether frequently acting out dream behaviors is related to an increased risk of RBD in the future.

Show Sources


Nielsen, T. Sleep, Dec. 1, 2009; vol 32: pp 1629-1636.

News release, American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

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