It’s safe to assume that the world has most likely gotten used to living alongside the coronavirus pandemic. Socially distanced meals at restaurants, sanitizers and every doorstep, and remote working is now common, but the fact remains, none of this is normal. It’s a situation none of us anticipated in our lifetimes, and it’s affecting us in more ways than we think- even while we’re asleep!
That’s right, the pandemic has had a profound impact on our dreams. According to experts, crises tend to create collective unrest, which in turn affects our sleep cycles. Disruptions in routines and disturbed sleep patterns then result in vivid dreams. What sets these particular dreams apart though is the mix of emotions associated with the pandemic- stress, anxiety, and loneliness, to name just a few.
Deirdre Barrett, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, has created an online survey to understand the dreams of people living through the coronavirus pandemic. The thousands of responses she has received have thrown up some major themes- predictably, one revolves around fears of contracting the virus. These take on direct manifestations, with people having dreams of contracting a fever or suffering from shortness of breath.
Another study that leveraged Artificial Intelligence to analyze the dreams of its participants found that COVID influenced nearly half of all upsetting dreams. The data were classified into clusters based on frequently appearing associations, few of which included social distancing, dystopia, and apocalypse-like situations. Out of the 33 total clusters identified, 20 were regarded as bad dreams.
Of course, not all these dreams are unpleasant. They may be odd, fantastical, or just downright bizarre. Some, in fact, may even be happy — involving long-awaited reunions with friends and family, or the eventual elimination of the virus. No doubt though, a surge in vivid, intense dreams can be unsettling. So is there anything you can do to combat this and enjoy a restful, dreamless sleep? The answer is yes!
Maintaining sleep hygiene
It may be harder now that we are always home, but try to sleep and wake up around the same time every day. This, coupled with things such as avoiding caffeine and limiting screen time before you hit the bed should have a positive impact on the quality of sleep. More specifically, staying away from COVID-related news, articles, and videos will go a long way in ensuring you don’t have disconcerting anxiety-fuelled nightmares.
Developing a night-time ritual
Closely related to sleep hygiene, a ritual such as drinking a cup of chamomile tea or reading a book before bed will help you relax before bedtime. This ritual could include almost any calming activity you enjoy — such as listening to soothing music, doing some light stretching, or meditating.
Professional therapy or mental health counselling
This may be the way to go if you believe that your dreams are a symptom of a deeper issue. Discussing the contents of your dreams with a therapist could help uncover any emotional disturbances or inner conflict that may be causing them. Perhaps the most major benefit is that therapy helps one explore the meanings of such dreams — and understanding these dreams is the first step to making them less frightening or stress-inducing.
Another method that is often recommended for individuals with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD, is known as imagery rehearsal therapy. It involves rehearsing alternative endings to remembered nightmares while awake. This method is also known as ‘rescripting’, and has proven to be highly effective. It allows the person undergoing this therapy to have a sense of control over their dreams, and take their storylines in different, non-distressing directions.
If you have noticed recurring, upsetting themes in your dreams, or if you have just noticed an increase in their number — don’t worry. Know that you are not alone, and are simply trying to process these unprecedented circumstances. As we wait for the world to go back to its pre-COVID self, there are a number of ways in which you can deal with this surge in vivid dreams — all you need to do is try!