Mental Health: Dreaming During the Pandemic

By Natalie Tayler

A few weeks ago, I heard my husband groan in his sleep. When I tapped him to awaken him, he began screaming and flailing at me. I had to shake him and call out his name till he was fully back from his nightmare. This is not something that I’ve ever experienced with him.

In reading I found that many people around the world are currently experiencing weird, vivid and often nightmarish dreams. Scientists claim this is not unusual, such experiences often follow sudden change, anxiety, or a traumatic global event—war, natural disaster, or terrorist attack.

How and why we dream

What we do during the day becomes fodder for our dreams. Many mental health professionals say that dreams offer a mechanism to cope with stress or simply reflect on what has passed. Dreams can be a sort of mental “rehearsal” to help us deal with our fears and real-life stress. Disturbing dream content is expected during stressful times.

Nightmares, however, can be a good thing. They help us “act out” how we would react in a real-life dangerous situation. Just as you fortify your muscles at the gym while preparing to run a marathon, your nightmares can be your mental training ground to prepare for real adversity.

Dreaming takes place in short bursts, roughly every 90 minutes during deep sleep. We wake naturally throughout the night after each of these cycles but it takes about five minutes to recall a dream. If you only stay awake for a few seconds you will not remember your dream.

Why we are having the dreams we are having

The current Covid-19 crisis has led to a great deal of stress and anxiety, poor sleep, and negative dream content. Human beings are wired to stay awake in the face of danger, so anxiety is likely to keep you awake longer between dream cycles and make you recall more dreams.

What you watch and what you read can directly affect what you’re dreaming about. Many people can’t seem to get enough Covid-19 news, and ruminating about it just before going to bed can work against our need to relax and get a good night’s sleep. It may also provide the anxiety-laden contents of our dreams.

Toward kinder dreams and better sleep

  1. Establish a consistent bedtime and wake up time.
  2. Try to restrict your news watching throughout the day and particularly limit your exposure to stressful news before going to bed.
  3. Create a relaxing wind-down routine about 90 minutes before bedtime. Use the time to rewind, reduce stress, perhaps listening to soothing music, even writing down what is bothering you may help. If you get it out of your head onto a piece of paper your brain does not feel the need to hang on to it.
  4. You might try programming the kind of dream you will have through what is called “dream incubation.” Choose a category of dream you want to have—let’s say a walk on a beach. Try to visualize the setting, even look at a photo or read about it, then repeat to yourself what you want to dream about before drifting off to sleep. Researchers don’t claim that this is full-proof, but it does increase your chances of having that dream.