The Weirdest Dreams I’ve Had Since Taking Antidepressants

Antidepressants can come with a number of side effects, but abnormal dreams is one of the weirdest.
illustrated by Helen Frost
Tornadoes, Cannibalism and a Priest on a Mobility Scooter: The Weirdest Dreams I’ve Had on Antidepressants

“I’m being chased by a tornado, with mine or my family’s life depending on moving out of its path,” Tom tells me.

Tom, 36, started taking the antidepressant citalopram a few years ago after his brother passed away. Since then, he’s suffered from recurring nightmares that revolve around tornadoes.

“I’ll look out of the window or into the sky and see one forming, like it’s tormenting me,” he continues. “Something sinister, present, but not immediately threatening.” 


Antidepressants are notorious for their slew of unpleasant side effects. Whether it’s losing your sex drive or your sense of taste, those taking the medication certainly don’t have it easy. And with a record number of more than six million people receiving antidepressant prescriptions in England in the three months to September 2020, that makes a lot of struggling people right now. 

But there’s one antidepressant side effect that seemingly few people know about: abnormal dreams. It’s also a common one – the NHS says that between one in ten and one in 100 users of sertraline (the most prescribed antidepressant in the UK) will report experiencing abnormal dreams. For some, these dreams touch on taboo topics, meaning sufferers are reluctant to open up about their disturbing experiences.

If you’ve never experienced antidepressant dreams before, it can be hard to imagine just how surreal a dream can get. But antidepressant dreams truly are next level, as 30-year-old Rufaro found out. 


“These dreams are so vivid, when I wake up sometimes I believe what happened in my dream actually happened,” she says. “I even go to call my friends and tell them about this fake reality, thinking it's real. The dreams are so real that sometimes there is no real way of distinguishing between them and reality.”

For antidepressant users like Rufaro, the most unsettling thing is the lack of distinction between their dreams and reality. For others, the dreams themselves are the most unnerving part.

Sunita, 38, has been taking antidepressants for years. “I started to get depressed in my late twenties,” she tells me. “This was exacerbated by my ovarian cancer diagnosis. I had to deal with losing my ovaries, hair loss, multiple surgeries, menopause and horrible chemo symptoms.” 

To make matters worse, Sunita also contracted COVID-19 while receiving treatment for her cancer. This traumatic experience combined with her antidepressant prescription has resulted in terrifying nightmares for Sunita. 

“I have been having disturbing dreams of me being operated on while awake and my ovaries being taken, surgeons eating my fertility organs and chasing me,” she says. “I have also had dreams about being in magical lands with zombies, cannibals trying to terrorise and eat me, and aliens trying to do experiments on me.”

Twenty-two-year-old Sophie* also has recurring dreams that revolve around her trauma. “I often have ‘redemption’ dreams where my abusive ex and rapist apologise,” she says. “These are very common and so vivid that I feel very low the day after I have them.”


And she experiences strange dreams totally unrelated to this: “I recently dreamed I was on an episode of Desperate Housewives and was being tormented by a priest on a mobility scooter,” she says.

Sheer absurdity is another common feature of antidepressant dreams – something that Bella*, 22, has also experienced.

“In one dream, I was at my grandad’s house and saw this fleet of black cars pull up outside and I’m like, ‘Oh shit, should I hide?’ And then fucking Glenn Close steps out in that big fur coat she wore in the 101 Dalmations film and six massive men open the door for her,” she recalls. “They bust in saying my grandad owes them money, and Glenn Close chops him up with a blunt axe while I watch.”

Riley*, 23, has also had dreams with a jarring level of detail. “I dreamed I was working at a cafe with Gale from The Hunger Games. Now, I've only ever watched The Hunger Games once, years ago, and I didn't even know this actor’s name, so I'm not sure why he turned up,” she says. “But then he asked me on a date and I said yes, despite being very gay and not attracted to Gale from The Hunger Games. We then did this sort of life-or-death assault course over the Grand Canyon, and at the end of it was a wooden hut.”

She continues: “I went into it and there was a hunched old man who said that he was a cannibal, and pulled back a curtain to reveal Gale strapped to a table. The evil old man told me I had to cook him… and then I woke up, insanely confused, and googled Gale's actor – it was Liam Hemsworth.”


So, why do antidepressants trigger dreams featuring cannibalism and Cruella de Vil?

Many antidepressants, including SSRIs, have been found to suppress REM sleep. When your REM sleep is suppressed, you’re more likely to wake up frequently during the night, resulting in shorter dreams. These shorter dreams are usually so intense because your brain is trying to compensate for your body’s lack of REM sleep by packing in as much as possible when it can.

Dr. Raheel Karim, consultant psychiatrist and senior member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, adds another reason why our dreams can go haywire. “In the SSRI class, antidepressants affect neurotransmitters including serotonin. And with increased neurotransmitters, you might notice changes in your dreams,” he says.

The good news is that if you’re experiencing strange dreams on antidepressants, it’s nothing to worry about. Dr. Karim makes the point that it’s “one of the most common side effects” of SSRIs. That said, if your dreams are causing undue anxiety by resurfacing traumatic memories or negatively affecting your sleep, you should chat to your doctor to discuss other options. Dr. Karim suggests taking your medication in the morning if you’re not doing so already, but reiterates that “it is important to talk to your GP [as] it might be worth reducing the dosage” if your problems persist.

In short, don’t fret. Your dream about eating Liam Hemsworth doesn’t really mean you’re repressing cannibalistic feelings (sorry, Freud).

*Names have been changed.