Having Weird Dreams? The COVID-19 Pandemic Could Be To Blame
The world has been nothing short of turned upside down from the coronavirus pandemic, and people everywhere are experiencing disruptions to sleep because of it. Namely, many of us might be experiencing more strange (and even scary) dreams as of late, which some people have begun calling "pandemic dreams."
To find out why this is happening and what we can do about it, we reached out to Eva Selhub, M.D., a physician and expert on stress and mind-body medicine.
Why COVID might be affecting our dreams.
While the science behind dreaming is still somewhat elusive, some experts theorize that our dreams are a result of our brain logging memories and information gathered from the day. "You bring what you listen to, watch, and think about all day into your sleep so that memory can be consolidated," Selhub explains. "So oftentimes, these thoughts will show up in your dreams."
With so many of us checking the news before bed to stay up to date on the pandemic, we could be setting ourselves up for a pandemic dream. According to research following the 9/11 attacks, exposure to unsettling news can absolutely creep into your sleep and affect our dreams. We also know the amygdala is active in dreaming, which plays a central role in our biological response to fear.
Other research has also suggested that negative experiences in our day-to-day lives may lead us to have more negative dreams—that, or we're just more likely to interpret our dreams negatively.
Your dreams on stress.
The weird dreams we're having right now may have once offered us an evolutionary advantage, Selhub explains: "From a very basic level, if you're being chased by a lion, the last thing you want to do is sleep. So when the brain perceives your life is under threat, the fight-or-flight response is set off, resulting in the production of stress hormones like noradrenaline, which ensure you stay hyper-aroused and hypervigilant."
With stress hormones coursing through our brains even after we close our eyes, that could explain why our dreams have been a bit wonky. Even the anticipation of what-ifs can set off that fight-or-flight response, Selhub explains.
"COVID-19 presents all of us with a threat to our livelihood, whether it's fear of getting sick, the economic uncertainty, or just uncertainty in general as our world changes," Selhub says. "To the brain, uncertainty is no different from being chased by a lion; they are both threats."
And when stress gets in the way of a good night's sleep, "we spend more time in REM (lighter) sleep—where dreams happen—as opposed to spending more time in deep sleep."
Another factor to consider is the abrupt change to our usual schedules. Previous research has shown that new experiences spur the release of memory-boosting chemicals in the brain, meaning it's possible our unique and rapidly evolving new circumstances are actually causing our brains to consolidate on overdrive.
If our dreams really are the product of memory consolidation as Selhub suggests, this more rapid consolidation process could potentially make us more likely to experience more intense (and complex) dreams.
The changes in schedule directly affect our sleep, too. Whether it's because our bedtime has changed, we're not getting enough movement, or we're struggling to stay asleep, we might be sleeping more lightly than usual. That, again, means we're spending more time in the part of our sleep cycle conducive to dreaming.
What can be done to help?
Despite their potential evolutionary benefits, nowadays these vivid dreams are likely just perpetuating exhaustion.
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Dreams can be full of personal insight and lessons if you're into that sort of thing, but they can also cause sleep disturbances and lead to grogginess the following morning. Fortunately, being sure to nurture your body with nutritious foods, movement, and mindfulness practices can help quell those stress hormones and help you rest easier.
Here are Selhub's recommendations for supporting a great night's sleep and, hopefully, less frantic dreams:
- Consume the news less often. Stay informed, but limit when you tune in (mornings and perhaps late afternoon but not a few hours before bedtime).
- Follow sleep hygiene and accommodate your circadian rhythm by spending time outside if you can, eating at set times, and having a set sleep/waking schedule.
- Pick up a meditation practice to help you shift away from fearful thoughts and elicit the relaxation response. Selhub recommends doing this regularly, 10 to 20 minutes a day and also prior to sleep (and if you wake up in the middle of the night).
- Practice mindfulness. Without judging your feelings, notice when your fear is heightened. Use breathing techniques to clear the negative emotions and redirect your focus to something that you can be grateful for.
- Look for a charity to support or ways to help someone in need if you're dealing with feelings of helplessness (which can lead to stress).
- Connect with others. Knowing someone else is on the lookout for the lion allows you to rest a little easier. Spiritual communities are very helpful for this, as they help you connect with people but also to something larger than yourself in the face of fear.
If your dreams have been a bit off lately, have no fear. You're certainly not alone, and there are lots of steps we can take to ensure a better night's rest. Eventually the "lion" that is COVID-19 will pass—and until then, it's important we all do our best to stay healthy and rested.