All those odd dreams that have seem to have increased in intensity and vividness are more than just your imagination in play.
What with all the social distancing and self-isolation currently in effect, there's now plenty of time to catch that snooze that isn't always possible for most people during a busy week. However, that might not be the case for you. Whether it's the weird dreams causing restlessness or insomnia, even with so much time at home, sleep is elusive. But you're not the only one and experts explain why.
Recently, there's been an outpouring of people on social media recalling some very vivid dreams or having trouble sleeping as everyone is dealing with the stress of the pandemic. “These are really stressful times whether it’s us personally who are affected, or the people we are close to,” says Dr. Kevin Gilliland, a clinical psychologist and member of People’s Health Squad. “We are surrounded by uncertainty.”
With regards to the dreams, whether during these tough times or even during a normal, busy life, “quite a bit of the content of our dreams comes from our daily life,” says Dr. Gilliland. And considering our “thoughts and feelings that could include sadness, oddness, feeling out of place, fear, relief, quietness, loneliness, boredom, newness — and that’s just in the last hour,” it's not a stretch to say that they will sneak its way into our dreams.
“We’re in the midst of odd times and that gets worked into our dreams,” he added. “Our minds are busy during the day trying to filter out our worries or concerns or even our desires and when we sleep, that part of our brain that filters relaxes a bit and those things come to the surface.”
In a blog titled, I Dream of Covid, people have recounted some of their surrealist dreams that have occurred during this time. One person said that "Queen Elizabeth was eating lunch at a table in our company social hub," while a California resident said, "I showed up at a center for mandatory instant testing, waited in a short line, and when my test showed positive, I was instructed to get inside a 6-ft x 2 x 2 ft wooden box."
And these dreams aren't just weird, they're vivid too. Dr. Courtney Bancroft, a psychologist based in New York City, mentioned that patients who've reached out to her request her to address their concerns about their sleep and their difficulties with dreams.
"When we see heightened levels of stress, we often see heightened levels of vivid dreams happening," said Dr. Bancroft, according to Today. "Our brains get flooded with all sorts of neurotransmitters and chemicals, like adrenaline and epinephrine. When they're activated, even if it's during the day, it can actually remain present while you're sleeping, and that can interrupt the regular sleep cycle a bit and cause those vivid dreams."
In Vox's interview with Dr. Dylan Selterman, a social psychologist who runs the Dreams, Relationships, Emotions, Attraction, and Morality (DREAM) Lab at the University of Maryland, he was asked how a global pandemic can affect a person's dreams. His response seems to be in agreement with that of Dr. Bancroft's explanation as well. "If we feel some degree of stress about the pandemic, or about work or family, then it’s normal for those types of themes to appear in our dream content," he said.
"Some researchers believe that dreams have a functional purpose to prepare us for difficult or challenging situations when we awake. Normally, what happens during a stress dream is that your mind appears to be working a problem out. There are also researchers who believe the inverse of that; for example, if you’re experiencing difficulties in your current life and dream about them, that can predict your future mental health," Selterman continued.
"Those are some possible explanations as to why some people might have stressful dreams. We’re trying to work through this situation emotionally, trying to prepare for the future. It’s not surprising to me to hear that some people are having dreams related to the pandemic. Both my wife and I have had dreams that involve social distancing, where we try to maintain physical distance from people around us, because that’s what we’re doing when we’re awake," Selterman explained.
But it isn't the dreams that are affected by what is happening around us. Our ability to sleep can also be altered during times like these. "If you’re experiencing higher levels of stress, your ability to let your guard down and sleep normally or deeply gets impaired," said Dr. Bancroft.
"Your brain is trying to keep you alert, and this is where people might have difficulty falling asleep — or more intense stress dreams." Additionally, since everyone is forced to stay home, there are disruptions in your sleep cycle which can also cause insomnia.
As for a way to help reduce these effects, Dr. Joshua Tal, a psychologist who practices in New York City and New Jersey and specializes in sleep disorders and Dr. Bancroft suggest the following:
1. Try to maintain a normal schedule during the day.
2. Watch what you're eating as consuming large meals, caffeine, or alcohol before bed could disrupt sleep.
3. To help your brain connect lying in bed with sleep, avoid doing active tasks while in bed like working or playing games.
4. Create a pre-bedtime routine to wind down and help your brain relax.
5. If you find yourself more prone to nightmares, set up "reminders of safety" in the area where you sleep. It could be in the form of your favorite pictures, fragrances or music playlist as you fall asleep.