I have recently had quite a few people reaching out to me about unusual dreams during this period. In my journey into understanding sleep, I have been fascinated by the role dreams play and would like to bring together some of my thoughts to help us better understand our dreams and improve our sleep.
A number of reasons can make you dream more. Here are some that could be the result of the current situation with covid19. I will look at why we dream, how the current situation may affect our dreams and what we can do to improve our dream experiences.
What are dreams?
Before we dive into what could be causing unusual dreams it is important to look at why we dream.
When we sleep our body may appear lifeless but our brains are as active as they are during the day.
Dreams can occur at any sleep stage but most dreams occur in our rapid eye movement (REM) sleep about 20min into our 90 min sleep cycles.
REM sleep is said to help with our emotional regulation and memory. During REM sleep the thalamus in our brain is active. The thalamus is responsible for receiving sensory information. It sends the cortex images, sounds, and other sensations that fill our dreams.
Not only does our brain file away our experiences, memories, and learning during REM sleep it is also said to associate it to related memories and content in our brains.
Why might we dream more during this time?
Remembering more dreams
On average you have around 3 to 6 dreams a night, most people do not remember their dreams or that they have dreamt. On average people remember 4 to 6 dreams a month. The functions tied to recalling dreams disappear very quickly when we wake up.
People tend to remember dreams more when
there is increased emotion attached to a dream,
it is a strange dream
they wake up during or just after the dream.
In the next few points, I will cover why there may be more emotion attached to some of the dreams you are experiencing and why the content may be different.
You may not be dreaming more, you may simply be remembering more of your dreams. This can be due to the content and the fact we are no longer rushed into our commutes giving us more time to recall dreams when we wake up in the morning
Dealing with uncertainty and new routines
During the day we are bombarded with content eliciting fear and stress this persists into our dreams. The headlines and reporting of the current situation are not helping with our mental health. This on top of the uncertainty we all face is bound to increase anxiety and activate the body's fight or flight responses.
How this relates to our dreams is covered in the threat simulation theory one of the more popular theories as to why humans evolved to dream. It outlines that dreams help us rehearse threats and appropriate responses to them, helping us adapt and prepare.
The threat simulation theory may explain why dreams are more negative than positive and often contain themes that are not reflective of our modern-day to day lives such as being attacked.
What is almost certain is that the content of our dreams help us regulate our experiences, emotions and integrate them into other semantic networks. We may be having more emotional dreams as the content of our days are more loaded with emotions caused by the current situation.
Our new routines can also play a role in the changes of content in our dreams in a different way. In REM sleep the brain does not just file away new memories it also associates it to related content. As our schedules and stimuli during the day have changed there is a chance that different associations are being referenced than what we are generally used to. As a bi-product the content of our dreams is different. We may recall these dreams easier as the content is unusual.
Longer sleep period
Most of us are getting more time asleep, reclaiming the time our morning commutes and social commitments stole from us. Evidation health found that after the US declared people should stay at home the fitness trackers of 68000 Americans show they are getting 20% more sleep. Not only is this great for our health it is also giving us more time to dream. You may be remembering more of your dreams simply because you are spending more time dreaming!
Another cause can be explained by REM rebound. 1 in 3 of us suffers from poor sleep so those of us that were running our lives on sleep deprivation due to our busy social and work lives may be experiencing REM rebound.
REM rebound occurs when you regularly do not get enough sleep. You tend to spend more time in REM sleep on the occasions you manage to finally get enough sleep. REM sleep as mentioned earlier is the stage in our sleep cycle where most dreaming occurs.
The amount of sleep you need is biologically determined but may change slightly with age. For most people it's between 7.5hrs and 8.5hrs of sleep and for a small portion of people, it could be as little as 6hrs or as much as 10hrs.
How can I improve my dreams?
There are a number of ways to approach your dreams and improve your sleep. I will talk about some of the things I have found most accessible and impactful.
Embrace your dreams
Biologically speaking dreams are not there for us to interpret if they were then arguably we would remember much more of them. Our dreams are very subjective and linked to our personal experiences (Dr. Antonio Zadra ).
Based on Dr Zadra's observations I would not encourage you to dwell on the content of your dreams for too long but it is an opportunity for you to reflect on how you feel and explore ways to improve your overall emotional wellbeing.
You can also take comfort in knowing that studies have shown dreams and more specifically nightmares may help us process and deal with trauma. A study conducted at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago of recently divorced women, showed that the women who dreamt more about the divorce and their spouse overcame their depression significantly faster than women who didn’t.
Dreams help us with emotional problem solving and making sense of our experiences. They can help resolution with trauma, depression, and bereavement.
The intense dream you had maybe helping you with situations you are going through - embrace them
Regular sleep routine
Maintaining a regular sleep routine will help with the quality of your sleep.
Quality of sleep is an important factor in our overall sleep health. It can minimise your experience of REM rebound and support your ability to process emotions during the day.
Here are some tips for improving your sleep quality:
A good routine includes having the same bedtime and wake up time. The regularity of sleep has a great impact on our quality of sleep.
Your ability to fall asleep has a significant physiological factor. Keep your bed for sleep and sex, thus allowing you to fall asleep quicker when you jump in bed as your brain associates it with sleep.
Avoid your devices before bed, mainly to prevent the anxiety and physiological activation they trigger. Devices easily delay you from falling asleep for 30min or more as your brain tries to switch off from this activation. Instantly adding to your sleep debt,
Writing in a journal before you sleep can help take the emotional edge off some of your day's experiences. Relieving the anxiety and stress from a growing to-do list or article you read earlier in the day can help you wind down. Researchers from Baylor University and Emory University found that writing to-do lists, rather than writing about completed tasks, helped people fall asleep an average of nine minutes faster. Journaling is even more attractive when compared with the pharmaceutical clinical trials of people using sleeping aids. The participants fell asleep only 10 minutes earlier than usual.
Positive journaling can also help frame your thoughts before bed. Research has found anxiety before sleep is related to a negative dream affect and peace of mind before sleep is related to a positive dream affect. If you want good dreams -go to bed with a positive frame of mind.
The science of dreaming is still in its early days but what has been uncovered shows that dreams help us with our emotional wellbeing and memory. So embrace and explore your dreams no matter how scary they are. If your dreams are considerably affecting you, you may wish to talk to a professional and look at dream mastery techniques and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).