Dreaming is a something everyone does, whether they remember their dreams or not. Recently, many have been complaining about particularly vivid dreams during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dreams are the brain processing information gathered from our waking lives. It is recommended that adults sleep between seven and nine hours per evening to maintain optimal wellbeing and health. When we fall into a slumber, we go through many different stages of a sleep cycle. These include light and deep sleep, as well as a period known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.
During REM sleep, our brains are highly engaged. This sleep cycle is responsible for highly emotive and vivid visuals in our dreams. There are several cycles of REM sleep during the night, and this is why we often remember pieces of a dream, but rarely the full details.
Research has also found that REM sleep plays a vital role in regulating mood, cognitive function and performance.
Some believe that dreams act as a defence mechanism that protects our mental health and gives us an opportunity to work through real-life fears and anxieties. The pandemic and its associated restrictions may deeply impact when and how we sleep. This may positively affect some, and negatively impact others.
During this pandemic, studies from China and the UK show many people are reporting a heightened state of anxiety and are having shorter or more disturbed sleep.
Ruminating about the pandemic, either directly or via the media, just before going to bed can work against our need to relax and get a good night’s sleep. It may also provide fodder for dreams.
When we are sleep deprived, the pressure for REM sleep increases and so, at the next sleep opportunity a so-called rebound in REM sleep occurs. During this time dreams are reportedly more vivid and emotional than usual.
Other studies indicate that people may be sleeping more and moving less during the pandemic.
If you’re working and learning from home on flexible schedules without the usual commute it means you avoid the morning rush and don’t need to get up so early. Heightened dream recall has been associated with having a longer sleep as well as waking more naturally from a state of REM sleep.
If you’re at home with other people you have a captive audience and time to exchange dream stories in the morning. The act of sharing dreams reinforces our memory of them. It might also prepare us to remember more on subsequent nights.
This has likely created a spike in dream recall and interest during this time.
Dreaming can help us to cope mentally with our waking situation as well as simply reflect realities and concerns.
In this time of heightened alert and changing social norms, our brains have much more to process during sleep and dreaming. More stressful dream content is to be expected if we feel anxious or stressed in relation to the pandemic, or our working or family situations.
Hence more reports of dreams containing fear, embarrassment, social taboos, occupational stress, grief and loss, unreachable family, as well as more literal dreams around contamination or disease are being recorded.
An increase in unusual or vivid dreams and nightmares is not surprising. Such experiences have been reported before at times associated with sudden change, anxiety or trauma, such as the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in the US in 2001, or natural disasters or war.
Those with an anxiety disorder or experiencing the trauma first-hand are highly likely also to experience changes to dreams.
One theory on dreams is they serve to process the emotional demands of the day, to commit experiences to memory, solve problems, adapt and learn.
This is achieved through the reactivation of particular brain areas during REM sleep and the consolidation of neural connections.
During REM the areas of the brain responsible for emotions, memory, behaviour and vision are reactivated (as opposed to those required for logical thinking, reasoning and movement, which remain in a state of rest).
The activity and connections made during dreaming are considered to be guided by the dreamer’s waking activities, exposures and stressors.
The neural activity has been proposed to synthesise learning and memory. The actual dream experience is more a by-product of this activity, which we assemble into a more logical narrative when the remainder of the brain attempts to catch up and reason with the activity on waking.