By Nikki Harper
Staff Writer for Wake Up World
If you’ve noticed that your dreams are getting weirder, more disturbing, more violent or simply stranger lately, you’re by no means alone. Multiple research institutions are currently studying the effect Covid-19 and the pandemic are having on our dreams, and there appears to be consistent evidence that people are recalling more dreams, and that those they are recalling appear to be stranger than normal .
The Lyon Neuroscience Research Centre in France has been studying pandemic dreams since March this year and has reported a 35% increase in dream recall, with people on average experiencing 15% more disturbing dreams than normal . Meanwhile, the Italian Association of Sleep Medicine has been analyzing the dreams of Italians during lockdown and have reported nightmares at levels which would correspond with that expected of people experiencing PTSD .
There are a number of physiological reasons which could account for why people seem to be dreaming more. Because coronavirus has severely impacted people’s daily routines, it may be that many of us are simply sleeping for longer. If we don’t have to get up to go to work, for example, we’re more likely to sleep for longer, spending more time in REM sleep, and therefore more likely to have vivid dreams – and to remember them. Additionally, many people are under intense stress, which means we’re more likely to experience disturbed sleep. If you wake up restlessly during the night, you’re more likely to interrupt a period of REM sleep, which makes dream recall more likely. We all wake up multiple times a night, but often only for seconds, which we don’t remember. During stressful times, however, we wake up for longer periods. It takes a few moments after waking for the brain to start encoding memories, so the longer you remain awake in between bouts of sleep, the more likely you are to remember a dream.
However, even if we can explain the physiology behind increased dreaming and better dream recall during the pandemic, the science explaining why the content of the dreams may be different is less clear cut. Despite many decades of research, we still don’t really understand the purpose of dreams, the mechanisms behind them or the link between dream content and our emotional state.
Deirdre Barrett, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of several books on dreaming has been running an online survey asking people to submit their dreams during the Covid-19 crisis. As she bluntly puts it, “they are way more anxious on average than a normal set of dreams.” We do know from previous studies that the dreams of world war II prisoners were often founded on trauma , and we also know that post 9-11, a study found that people’s dreams had been more intense and traumatic . With coronavirus creating an intense level of stress around the world, it’s possible that we’re seeing a similar global dreaming response this time.
Past research has shown that the more anxious someone feels during the day, the more likely they are to experience unsettling dreams or nightmares . Our best guess is that dreams during an anxious time are the brain’s way of trying to make sense of what’s going on. Because the virus itself is invisible, our dreams tend to represent it symbolically instead, hence the increase in dreams which involve monsters, murderous individuals, accidents and all-round trauma.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, some evidence suggests that frontline healthcare workers are experiencing some of the worst dream trauma – “really full on nightmares – like you see with a traumatised population” according to Barrett . The good news, however, is that there are things you can do to help to minimize your sleep disturbance and to avoid traumatic dreams.
Pay Attention to Your Sleep Routine
Experts differ over whether it’s best to try to go to bed at the same time every night or whether instead you should simply sleep when you feel like it, but whichever you choose, try to stick to that approach rather than varying it.
Meditating before bed can be helpful, as can soothing yoga exercises or a warm bath. Try to avoid screen time for at least an hour before bed and ensure that your bedroom is not too hot.
During the day, get plenty of exercise. Although this is difficult during quarantine, there are thousands of online exercise videos you can workout to, or you can get your daily dose of fresh air on a good long walk. In order to get restful sleep, you need to be physically tired.
Consider Dream Scripting
Dream scripting is a method which can help in avoiding disturbing dreams, particularly if you suffer from recurrent dreams, or if you have been through a particularly traumatic experience which keeps coming up in your dreams.
Essentially, the technique involves writing down a very detailed step by step script of what would normally happen in your dream – if you don’t have recurrent dreams, imagine what might happen in a bad nightmare, or what did happen in a bad dream that you’ve remembered. Be very explicit, detailing everything you can remember up to the very worst moment of crisis, which is usually the point at which you woke up.
Now continue the script with a detailed resolution of some kind – how you escaped from or recovered from the real-life trauma if there was one, or how you could escape safely from the dream situation. If you’re dealing with a purely dream situation you can be as crazy and inventive as you like here – in dreams, anything goes! – all that matters is that you walk your dream, on paper, through to a happy and peaceful conclusion.
When you have finished, read the script to yourself over and over again, for ten minutes or so before you sleep. This helps your brain to confront the emotions of the frightening trauma while you are still awake, and also coaxes the brain into “remembering” that there is/was/can be a good resolution to the scare.
If you do suffer from very distressing dreams, remember too that it’s always good to talk these things through. Talk to your family about them or get them down on paper and submit them to a dream survey – anywhere but isolated in your own head.
-  https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/science-and-technology/2020/04/pandemic-giving-people-vivid-unusual-dreams-heres-why
-  https://www.wired.co.uk/article/coronavirus-dreams-sleep
-  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2225570/
-  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3690155/
About the author:
Nikki Harper is a spiritualist writer, astrologer, and editor for Wake Up World.