COVID-19 Pandemic Dreams: the what, the why, and the how-to manage bad dreams

Dr Melisa Ree Blog, COVID, Dreaming

Researchers around the globe are looking into the phenomenon of pandemic dreams and are finding that people are indeed experiencing COVID-19-related dream changes. According to an ongoing French study, the coronavirus pandemic has caused a 35 percent increase in dream recall among participants, and a 15 percent increase in negative dreams. All over social media, people are reporting bizarre and intense dreams during the pandemic.

Dr Melissa Ree spoke with Jessica Strutt on ABC radio today to discuss in the ins and outs of pandemic dreams. To catch the 6-7 minute audio, scroll to 3hr 7min and 40 seconds (close to the end).

Melissa also spoke with Andrea Gibbs on Sunday 17th May about dreams. Scroll to 33min40 seconds.

Do we all dream? And when during sleep do dreams occur?

A nights sleep can be described as a roller coaster ride where we cycle through different stages of sleep. We might typically have 4-5 cycles across the night with each cycle lasting for around 90minutes. We start the cycle with light or stage 1 sleep which feels rather like dozing.

We usually quickly progress to stage 2 sleep which is a little deeper and the stage that we spend the most time in. This is followed by deep sleep which is hard to be roused from and we know is important for cleaning out brain toxins.

Each sleep cycle ends with a period of REM, or rapid eye movement sleep. This occurs mostly in the second half of the night and is when we dream most vividly. Along with rapid eye movements, and increased brain activity, REM sleep is also recognized by low muscle tone  – in fact, we’re essentially paralysed during REM sleep which is a safety mechanism that ensures we don’t act out our dreams.

So why are people experiencing dream changes during this pandemic?

There are a few possibilities here:

  1. Stress and anxiety:  We’re dealing with lots of worry and uncertainty at the moment and this tends to be reflected in our dreams. Not surprisingly, research has found that the content of dreams becomes more disturbing under conditions of stress. Dreams may be a mechanism through which we process our worries, a form of ‘overnight therapy’. Indeed pandemic dreams are being coloured by stress, isolation, and uncertainty.
  2. Changes to our sleep routine:
    • If REM sleep has been suppressed for a period of time that it will bounce back stronger the next night when the REM-suppressors are lifted. Factors that might suppress REM sleep include sleeping for a shorter duration than usual, alcohol, caffeine, obstructive sleep apnea, or certain medications.
    • If we have conditions that suppress REM for a night or two, then we’ll catch-up with a REM rebound when the REM-suppressing conditions are removed – the REM rebound is experienced as more, longer, and very vivid dreams
    • The most intense bouts of REM sleep tend to happen later in your sleep period (i.e. the early hours of the morning).  During social isolation and working from home, many people are sleeping in a little bit later because they aren’t commuting to work or getting the kids ready for school. The later into the morning people sleep, the more dreaming sleep they are likely to experience.
    • Finally, spending longer in bed overnight can lead to more wakings and this may mean that dreams are recalled because the point at which we’re most likely to wake up is just after the dream at the end of a sleep cycle.

Why are dreams often so bizarre?

Interestingly, the prefrontal cortex which is part of the brain responsible for rational thought, is relatively quiet during REM sleep. This means that the emotional part of the brain is left unchecked during dreaming. This is why lots of usually unrelated ideas can be connected together, creating some very odd scenarios.

 Why is it that sometimes we can vividly remember our dreams and sometimes we can’t?

It’s a little known fact that, we all dream (almost) every night. We tend to only remember our dreams if we wake up during them. We need to be awake for a few minutes for the dream to be encoded into long term memory, otherwise, it’s lost forever.

Do we know much about the purpose of dreaming?

Dreams are likely vital, both psychologically and physiologically. All humans dream, (nearly) every night, but we don’t yet fully understand the function of dreaming and REM sleep.

Some studies show that rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the sleep stage in which we have the most vivid dreams, is important for, aiding in memory, emotional regulation and learning. Dreaming may also promote neural development by providing the brain with stimulation – this may be why babies dream so much more than adults.

REM sleep is thought to enhance memory. The degree of emotion determines which memories the brain decides are important enough to keep. Emotionally laden memories tend to be the most critical for survival and daily function. You will likely forget mundane details such as what you wore two days ago, but if you see a car crash or you have a fight with your colleague, that’s emotional and it gets consolidated into memory more easily. This might also explain why our dreams tend to focus on emotional (and negative) material. In recent studies of dreams, about 65% are associated with sadness, apprehension, or anger; and 20% with happiness or excitement. 

Trusting that dreams (even the bizarre ones) are there for a good reason and are doing you good may help you to relax about the way they may have changed during COVID-19.

What people can do if they are having some weird dreams or nightmares that they are scared of?

We’d classify dreams as nightmares if they are vividly realistic, disturbing dreams that interrupt sleep. They can lead the person to feel scared of going to sleep, and worn out the next day,

Thankfully there are several interventions that can help:

  1. Remember that bad dreams are usually just a normal response to stress – they may serve an important function  – so while they can be disturbing they may actually be helpful – this mindset may help us to become more accepting of our bad dreams.
    • There is evidence that reminding yourself that this is ‘a dream rather than reality’ may help you to realise this when the dream appears.
  2. Being proactive in Stress management is important. 
    • Balance between commitments and leisure
    • Relationships and communication, asking for help
    • Responding to stressors rather than them accumulating
    • Practice relaxation (eg imagery, progressive muscle relaxation). There are lots of great apps to support this.
  3. Maintain a reasonably consistent sleep-wake routine- (within an hour or so each day).
    • Watch alcohol intake
    • Seek advice about if medications may be playing a role
    • Wind down before bed
  4. Imagery rehearsal training
    • Choose a nightmare you would like to work on
    • Write down the bad dream with as many details as possible, including how you felt during the dream.
    • Change an aspect of the nightmare – how it ends or any other aspect and rehearse the dream with the change
    • Rehearse the new dream before bed, reminding yourself that you can be in control of it.

Of course see your GP, sleep physician or us at Sleep Matters if you feel you need some support with managing nightmares.

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