Experts weigh in on why our dreams are so vivid and often negative during the pandemic
April 10, 2020
The stuff of nightmares
Last night I dreamed that after shopping, the grocery store blew up as I walked to my car.
This past week, a friend of mine dreamed of falling asleep during a Zoom call. In another friend’s dream, her temperature spiked to 103 degrees F during the night. My brother dreamed of being stuck in a cave, watching his hands slowly decay.
As our daytime lives are rippled with uncertainty and fear, our dream lives are starting to reflect those emotions. And unlike the wispy dreams that flee upon waking, these dreams are sticking with us, and we’re remembering them in all their lurid detail.
Sleep experts think that the combination of strange dreams and the ability to remember them could be a function of what we’re all experiencing right now: more time to dream, and more emotions to process. Because our schedules are more flexible, we have the opportunity to dream more. Because our world is scary, our dreams have become nightmares.
“A lot of us have a more relaxed schedule right now, and we’re sleeping how we should be sleeping, without having a horrible alarm clock telling us to take our kids to the school bus,” said Graham Diering, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at UNC Chapel Hill. “That relaxed schedule but heightened emotional environment makes dreams notably more intense."
Why we dream
A quick refresher on the sleep cycle: sleeping consists of REM (rapid-eye-movement) and non-REM (NREM) stages. NREM comes first and lasts longest, with 3 stages leading into the deepest possible sleep, when your body temperature drops, your breathing deepens and…you’re out. During this period your body is in restoration mode, repairing muscle tissue and performing brain maintenance.
But dreams visit us mostly during the REM stage, when our breathing quickens, and our eyes move rapidly back and forth.
Mary Ellen Wells, Ph.D., the director of Neurodiagnostics and Sleep Science at UNC Chapel Hill, said that although there are lots of theories about why we dream, the primary purpose is still one of the great mysteries of sleep. But she said “our brains are very active during sleep (and dreaming), often similar to when we are awake.”
Dr. Diering said one theory is memory consolidation.
“The REM cycle is about sorting out experiences and forming memories,” said Diering. “It’s taking your experiences from the day and incorporating them into your body of knowledge, like putting clothes away into your drawers.”
That’s where researchers think dreams come in—they are a vehicle for sorting our experiences from the day.
Diering said that most of the information we receive in a given day is triaged or prioritized based on importance. We don’t remember the details and they aren’t stored in long-term memory. Sometimes those bits and pieces come back in our dreams, so we can assimilate them into our memory—especially the emotional parts.
“Experiences that are emotionally charged often end up being the ones we incorporate into our long-term memory,” said Diering.
Which is why emotional experiences, like fear surrounding the coronavirus, often end up in our dreams.
Trauma breeds dreaming
Dr. Yan Li, director of counseling and psychological services at Duke Kunshan University, said that people under the threat of the pandemic are experiencing trauma.
“I’m not saying we’ll all have PTSD from this, but we’re experiencing a flood of information,” she said. “All that information is traumatic, and one trauma response is dreaming.”
According to Wells, negative emotions are more frequent than positive emotions in dreams.
“Our dreaming brain is very susceptible to social, physical, and emotional disruptions,” she said.
How to stop the nightmares?
So what if we DON’T want to be having these dreams? The advice from experts is simple: take care of yourself. Inviting in emotional trauma and fear will manifest in your dreams, so invite something else in.
“If negative emotions are charging your dreams, set aside the hour before sleep for calm, quiet time,” Diering said. “No national virus radio, no smartphone…read a romance novel or something else.”
Li said it’s important to watch your social media consumption and other activities that are risk factors for trauma.
“Be aware of your emotions and intervene with yoga, walks or mindfulness breathing in order to attend to those vulnerable emotions with compassion.”
In the meantime, you might as well put your dreams to good use. Researchers are collecting dreams to study this phenomenon, including Deirdre Barrett, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and the author of The Committee of Sleep. You can submit your dreams to her here.