There was little question that the coronavirus pandemic was going to alter our daily life—what was less expected, though, is the way in which this experience is affecting our sleep. While some people may be experiencing more cases of insomnia during these trying times, others are finding themselves sleeping more than ever. In both cases, many people are also reporting having more frequent or more vivid dreams during this crisis. According to the experts, there are a few different explanations for why this may be happening, as both spikes of anxiety and stark changes in normal routines can cause changes in our usual dream-behavior. If you’re having crazier dreams than normal, know that you’re not the only one—and that these reveries may provide you with valuable insights you can use in your daily life.
Though many people are feeling like they’re having more dreams than ever, that may actually be because they’re simply remembering them more. The majority of dreaming occurs during the “rapid eye movement” (REM) stage of sleep, the lightest stage of the sleep cycle. If you happen to wake up in the midst of this stage, you are more likely to actually remember your dreams. This is why it often feels like your dreams only ever occur in the minutes just before your alarm goes off—you’re probably dreaming during each REM cycle, but you only remember the one right before you wake up.
This gives us one explanation why you may be noticing an uptick in your dreams right now. Due to increased stress and anxiety, many people are experiencing more sleep disturbances. In turn, that ups the likelihood that they’re waking up during REM sleep—hence why there are more people remembering their dreams right now and during generally stressful times.
People may also be experiencing more REM sleep than usual. For many non-essential workers, daily life has slowed down significantly due to self-isolation. Without late-night dinner plans or long early-morning commutes, you may just be getting more sleep than usual. And if you had previously been (perhaps unwittingly) sleep deprived, you may actually be experiencing something called a “REM rebound” or a surge in REM sleep as a result of catching up on your shut-eye.
But it’s not just the frequency of dreams (or your ability to remember them) that has changed in the time of coronavirus—for many, the content of said dreams have evolved too. Even in the most normal of times, your dreams are shaped by the context of your everyday life. Through a concept called “dream incorporation,” the experiences you have and the stimuli you encounter throughout the day all have a way of popping up in your mind while you snooze.
This is part of the reason why many people are noticing a shift in their dreams during the pandemic. Because your dream scenarios often include details from your daily life, they are inevitably going to evolve if your lifestyle has been shaken up. If you’re self-isolating, you may be finding your dreams to be much more mundane than usual, because you’re not taking in all the stimuli of being out in public. For essential workers, whose real-life workplaces have become even more hectic and increasingly stress-inducing, their dreams may be reflecting the heightened pressure of that environment.
Regardless of the specifics, many people are feeling the gravity of this moment through their dreams. Deirdre Barrett, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and the author of The Committee of Sleep, has been collecting dreams through an online survey—and has found that right now “the majority of dreams have anxiety as the main emotion.”
Thankfully, there may be a greater purpose to these anxiety dreams. More than just a passive retelling of your daily life, research has pointed to the idea that dreams play a much more active role in our well-being. According to the “threat simulation theory,” dreams are an evolutionary function that helps the brain prepare for potential real-life stresses; they provide a risk-free opportunity to work through our fears. More than just imagining how we would react to a scary or stressful experience, dreams give us a chance to actually play-act the scenario. In this way, dreams can serve as test-runs that will hopefully alleviate some of the pressure if you ever encounter the situation in real-life.
This phenomenon is not just for nightmarish experiences either. Studies have shown that dream retention may also spike when you’re in the process of learning a new skill. As the entire world is trying to figure out how to readjust to this new normal, it makes sense that our brains feel the need to run through all of these new “skills” like navigating the grocery store or working from home.
So if you’re worried about the nature of your dreams these days, you needn’t be. This is a normal and expected reaction to this strange moment. Simply acknowledging the relationship between our waking life and our dream-state may help you regain a feeling of control. Remind yourself that your dreams are just information; they can help you pinpoint which aspects of life are causing you the most worry right now—which can, in turn, help you figure out how to more effectively address them when you’re awake. Stress dreams may also serve as a signal that you need to focus a little more attention on your sleep hygiene and nighttime routine. In times like these, taking care of yourself is hugely important—and making sure you’re doing all that you can to get good quality sleep can be vital.
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