At 1.30am the other night, I sat bolt upright, sweating. I had woken from a vivid dream where I was stuck in a tiny glass lift, so snug all around and so low above my head, that I couldn’t move and there was hardly room to breathe. A week earlier, a nightmare involved me trying repeatedly to phone my boyfriend to rescue me from some unspecified threat – but I kept dialling the wrong number (hundreds of times). Both were very unsettling.
Now, I’ve always had dreams – both pleasant, and not – throughout ‘peace time’. But they seem to be more vivid, and detailed, in the time of Covid-19. And it seems I’m not alone: the Google query, ‘Why am I having weird dreams lately?’ has quadrupled in the last week.
I asked friends if they’d had similar experiences. Almost all agreed. Some of them were hilariously surreal. An example: ‘I had a dream last night that my friend had shrunk her husband to the size of a baby and was carrying him around.’
A majority reported dreams based on domestic life that seemed to show frustration, anxiety or fear: not being able to find the toothbrush, being in an out-of-control speeding car, or having to sit an exam they hadn’t revised for.
‘I’ve been having very vivid dreams about being really late for work and getting into trouble with my boss,’ said a colleague. ‘When I’m dreaming, it’s almost as though I’m half asleep and I’m half awake. When I do wake up, it takes me a while to figure out whether it was a dream or something that actually happened.’
So what is going on here? Apparently, something interesting is going on in our brains.
‘Scientists believe that dreams happen in “active” REM sleep, as opposed to “normal” sleep,’ says Guy Leschziner, a consultant neurologist, sleep physician and author of The Nocturnal Brain: Nightmares, Neuroscience and the Secret World of Sleep. ‘The brainwaves of a person in REM sleep look almost as if they are awake. The dreams we have in light sleep are like bitty vignettes. But in REM sleep, they have more of a narrative structure.’
Sleep scientists hypothesise we’ve been getting more REM sleep since lockdown started and don’t have to leave the house for work or the school run. ‘We tend to do most of our REM sleep in the latter part of the night,’ says Leschziner. ‘Historically, most people are sleep-deprived: woken up before it is natural by our alarm clocks. Now many of us don’t have to get up early, we have “REM rebound”.’
Michael Grandner, director of the University of Arizona’s sleep programme, puts it thus: ‘Before, we might have stopped the movie before we got to the interesting part. Now, we might not be doing that.’
External factors are also playing a part. ‘Dreams are our brains processing and organising things,’ says Grandner. ‘Dumped in this new environment, we are struggling to figure our place in it.’
The 24-hour news cycle doesn’t help. A 2007 Science Daily report of college students in post-9/11 America revealed that for every hour of television viewed on September 11, stress levels – indicated by dream content – increased significantly. Says Leschziner: ‘You can’t withdraw yourself from all news, but it’s important to find a balance.’
Both Grandner and Leschziner agree that anxious people wake up more at night, and therefore remember their dreams. ‘Plus, we are normally so focused on getting up and getting out of the house that we don’t record them,’ says Leschziner. ‘Now we have time to recall them, talk about them, and write them down.’
According to a report in National Geographic there has been a 35 per cent increase in dream recall since the pandemic began. While some people report having pleasantly surreal dreams – or even none at all – many are having nightmares right now, which are widely known to follow trauma. But this may not be a bad thing. ‘Dreams are a kind of overnight therapy,’ says Leschziner. ‘They are normal, not pathological. People with post-traumatic stress disorder constantly wake up during the night. Therefore, they don’t adequately process their emotional experiences.’
And while certain people may be traumatised – NHS staff on the frontline seeing death on a daily basis, for example – Leschziner feels that most of us are haunted by a vaguer sense of invisible menace. This causes anxiety, rather than acute distress.
How to deal with bad dreams
So can we control our dreams? Not entirely, but we can reduce anxiety. ‘Think about what relaxes you,’ says Leschziner. Exercise helps, as does keeping to a bedtime routine, and not watching the late news. ‘Basic “sleep hygiene” – limiting caffeine, avoiding screens before bed, not going to bed hungry, going to bed at the same time each night – can lead to a better night,’ he says.
At some point, the world will go back to ‘normal’, but, says Leschziner, job insecurity and the continued health risk means anxiety may persist in a lesser form. So prepare yourself for some more interesting nights ahead.
The Daily Telegraph
What do your dreams mean?
‘Dream interpretation does not have a strong basis in science,’ says Guy Leschziner. ‘Nor do dreams tell you anything specific about your life.’ But here, for fun, are some common theories:
Your teeth are falling out: represents anxiety about your appearance, and how others perceive you.
Being chased: suggests you are running away from something causing you fear and anxiety in your life.
Unable to find a lavatory: means you have trouble expressing your needs in certain situations.
Being naked in public: symbolises not being able to ‘find yourself’, or being wrongly accused.
Not being prepared for an exam: One in five people will have this dream, and it’s thought to be a reflection of your lack of confidence and inability to find advance to the next stage in your life.
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