Have you noticed anything different about your dreams since the pandemic began? You’re not alone.
“I am hearing about more vivid and disturbing dreams,” says Dr. Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of medicine and host of the Personology podcast from iHeart Media.
Indeed, Google searches for terms like “vivid dreams” and “weird dreams” spiked in April, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Given that a lot of pretty unprecedented events have occurred over the past few months, it is not surprising that many people are experiencing weird dreams,” says Dr. Pavan Madan, M.D., a psychiatrist with Community Psychiatry, California's largest outpatient mental health organization
Part of the root cause, he explains, is control.
“Most people have had almost no control over how the pandemic has spread and affected their lives. Also, although cognitively we understand and accept the recommendations, our mind does not like to deal with things that it cannot control or predict, like the pandemic and horrible acts of racial discrimination.”
Saltz sees a twofold reason for the uptick in reports of weird dreams.
Firstly, we might be remembering our dreams more than usual.
“Anxiety and stress can disturb sleep,” she explains. “When a person has more awakenings at night, they are more likely to remember the dream they were just having.”
Most of the time, we forget our dreams, she says, but in anxious times, if we wake up more often, we’re more likely to remember what we’ve been dreaming about.
Secondly, the content of our dreams is probably more disturbing than it used to be, pre-pandemic.
“Dream content is generated by our brain, and it is often a combination of feeling states, [and] the day’s experiences (called the manifest content) that drive our dreams,” Saltz says. “When you are more disturbed, that can certainly present in the expression of your dream content as disturbing. Also, when the residue of the day is upsetting in actual content, similar themes or actual content can show up in your dreams. Many people are reporting dreams of some enormous calamity occurring and, day-to-day, their lives are feeling that way.”
We might not even be aware of how anxious we’re feeling, but underlying stresses can play a role in what our minds do at night.
“Even if we are not consciously thinking about it, many people are anxious about yet another bizarre crisis that is beyond their control,” Madan says.
“It is possible that our minds are now weaving possible absurd scenarios that can play out, perhaps to prepare us in case we face another crisis. Many people have been out of work or working from home, and not travelling or socializing as much as they used to. We’ve had less distractions to occupy us and more time to reflect on our lives and the world around [us]. These reflections may also be playing a role in bringing strange thoughts and dreams.”
Should I be worried?
Generally, dreams aren’t a cause for concern, but Saltz recommends talking to a therapist if nightmares are preventing you from getting any sleep at all because you’re afraid of going to sleep.
If you are dealing with insomnia or noticing other symptoms of anxiety, Madan suggests talking to a therapist.
“Anxiety disorders – which are very common and affect a third of us at some point in our lifetime – can cause the release of stress hormone, which can cause a range of issues, including insomnia. We are often distracted during the day with work or cooking or watching TV. However, when people are winding down at night, they finally face their thoughts and worries without distractions. When these thoughts are excessive or debilitating, these can trigger anxiety responses like insomnia, panic attacks, headaches and more.
“Talk to your therapist about cognitive and behaviour techniques that can help you reduce your anxious thoughts at night.”
Tips for a more peaceful night’s sleep
Madan recommends trying to keep your baseline anxiety level low so that additional stressors don’t make it unmanageable when you’re trying to relax and settle into bed.
“Talk about your thoughts and feelings with a loved one or [a] professional, practise self-care and get plenty of regular exercise during the day,” he says.
“If you find that you still have a lot of anxiety at night, do mindfulness exercises like breathing techniques or practise yoga to calm your mind and body.”
He also suggests creating a designated “worry” time during the day so you can make bedtime all about sleep.
“Some people benefit from listening to calming music or audiobooks, reading an informative but boring book, or using other sensory faculties to calm themselves at night,” he adds. That might include taking a shower, having some chamomile tea or smelling lavender oil.
Limiting your consumption of news, social media and your general screen time may also help, Madan says.
He also cautions people to be careful with taking sleep medications, as they can have adverse side effects, including the potential for dependence.
Coping with nightmares
Being aware of your dreams and examining them may also help you feel less anxious.
“Observing your dreams, understanding that they represent only what’s on your mind and being curious about what that is, and examining your own feeling states is often helpful in diminishing personal anxiety,” Saltz says.
Another tactic she recommends is writing your dreams down, particularly if you’re experiencing frightening nightmares. Write down your disturbing dream, she says, “but then write in a changed ending that has a more positive, or at least neutral, ending.” This can be helpful in alleviating any fear associated with the dream.