It’s not unusual to have the occasional dream where you wake up with a sudden start, but since the spread of coronavirus, many people have been reporting vivid nightmares, night after night.
Online searches for the term ‘vivid dreams’ have shot up in recent weeks, and people have been taking to social media in their droves to complain about the frequency of their realistic and unsettling dreams.
Most of us are familiar with this kind of disruptive sleep hallucination. Vivid dreams feature all kinds of fantastical themes, but they’re usually characterised by a sequence of illogical events that are seemingly disconnected.
Frustratingly, they can often be recalled immediately after waking but soon fade from memory, leaving the dreamer feeling disorientated for the first part of the day.
We all dream. Dreams are a result of our brain processing our conscious, and unconscious, experiences over the past few days. It’s thought that dreams are a way for your brain to store important memories and information that you have recently learnt and to forget the meaningless things. It’s also a way to sort complicated thoughts and feelings, and update our mindset.
So, what’s the reason behind this new phenomenon?
“It’s not necessarily that our dreams are more vivid right now. It’s more likely to be down to the fact that we’re remembering them more than usual,” says sleep consultant Dr Neil Stanley.
“The fact of the matter is that you can only remember a dream if you wake up during it. Usually, a person will naturally have four or five dreams a night, but if you’re a good sleeper, you may only remember one of them.” This is usually the dream you’re having just before you wake up in the morning.
But if there are a lot of intense emotions and memories to process – especially fear – dreams can be more vivid. Stress and fear can feel so real during dreams, so much so that stress hormones are actually released into the body, causing a physiological reaction. This influx of hormones can wake you up suddenly, causing you to recall the dream vividly and continue to feel the fear or anxiety it provoked.
“If your sleep is disturbed, because you’re stressed or anxious though, then you may wake more often during the night,” explains Dr Stanley.
“In these instances, you’re actually more likely to wake during REM sleep and you’ll probably remember more of your dreams, which is why they can feel more vivid.”
REM, or rapid eye movement sleep, begins about 90 minutes after you fall asleep and recurs every 90 minutes.
Often referred to as ‘dreaming’ sleep, REM is the sleep stage where you’re most likely to experience dreams. This is because, although the body is paralysed, the brain acts like it’s awake, firing signals with the same intensity as it would if you were going about your waking life.
“Further, your dreams can feature anything you know or can imagine and so while some dreams are very mundane others can be more exciting,” says Dr Stanley.
“The more dreams you wake up from, the more likely it is that some of them will be particularly odd, bizarre, frightening or emotionally charged,” he adds. “These dreams are liable to be described as being ‘vivid’, but in fact, they are simply more memorable than others.”
Why are people experiencing dreams with the same scenarios?
Dr Stanley says that although social media users might be finding similarities in the dreams they’re having, it’s not possible to say what a particular individual will report as being ‘vivid’.
“Most dreams that are related to anxiety involve the dreamer being in a situation that they would find stressful in their waking life, for some that may be public speaking, for others it could be being late for an appointment or meeting.”
In this case, it’s not that we’re all dreaming collectively, but more that we share the same fears and anxieties as a species.
Is it something we should be worried about?
“Unless your dreams frequently involve reliving a traumatic experience, which could be a sign of PTSD, you shouldn’t need to worry,” assures Dr Stanley.
“However, if you frequently remember more than one or two dreams during the night, or wake up feeling exhausted, then this is a sign that you are sleeping poorly and you need to improve your sleep.”
How can we get a more peaceful night’s rest?
“Anything that improves your sleep will reduce the number of dreams that you experience,” notes Dr Stanley.
“So, while you’re in lockdown, try to keep a routine so that your circadian rhythm [the natural, internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle] stays as consistent as possible.
“Research by DNA testing company 23andMe recently revealed our average natural genetic wake-up time is 7.55 am, but our early commutes probably meant we couldn’t always wake up when it’s naturally right to do so in the past.
“If you’re now working from home for a prolonged period, you should try to take advantage of a little lie-in, as it will help you keep your circadian rhythm in check, and encourage a better night’s sleep,” he advises.
“In a period of uncertainty, anxiety and stress levels can be increased, so try to limit your consumption of coronavirus-related news before bed.” This includes avoiding watching late-night news and talking about stressful things close to bedtime.
Finally, if you can’t fall asleep within 30 minutes when you go to bed, or are awake for more than 20 minutes in the middle of the night, Dr Stanley warns against lying in bed getting even more anxious.
“You need to do something to take your mind off things. Get up and go to another room and do something relaxing, like listening to a meditation app, until you feel sleepy again.”
Have you been having more vivid dreams lately?
– With PA
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