OK, Why Are We All Having Such Weird Dreams Right Now?
Illustration by Ms Stefania Infante
The uncertainty of this year makes getting a restful night’s sleep only slightly less likely than finding a winning lottery ticket in your back pocket. And when, or if, we do finally drop off to sleep, our dreams are so strange and vivid it’s as if we’d swallowed magic mushrooms an hour before bed rather than a mug of hot chocolate.
Right now, there are about three times the number of Google searches for “Why am I having strange dreams?” than there were at the beginning of the year. Meanwhile, on Twitter, collected together under the hashtag #quarandreams, you can find recollections of dreams that include spilling banana milkshake over a cure for Covid-19 or having brain surgery in the middle of a shopping mall.
American psychologist Dr Rubin Naiman, quoted in a recent Los Angeles Times piece about this apparent rise in the occurrence of strange dreams, said: “When waking life is more vivid, so is dream life.” This view is echoed by Dr Deirdre Barrett, a professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, who adds that we are not just having more intense dreams right now, but are also remembering them more vividly, too – like a dramatic scene from a movie we can’t seem to get out of our heads.
A few weeks ago I started working with Chris, a coaching client, for the second time – I last saw him about a year ago. Chris is an entrepreneur in hospitality. His company is having a tough time because of the lockdown and the cautious reopening of bars and restaurants means his business is only just breaking even.
“I’m starting to dread going to bed,” Chris told me when we met via FaceTime last week. “Each day I feel pretty sure I’m not going to have a good night’s sleep. My mind keeps obsessing with work stuff, even before my head hits the pillow.”
“When you do manage to sleep what are your dreams like?” I asked him, curious to know what they might reveal.
“Well…” Chris said, looking a little awkward. “Last night I dreamt my girlfriend, Sally, left me. In the dream I told her about how the company is having a really hard time and we might have to move out of town to live more cheaply,” he said. “And she wasn’t happy about it.”
“In the dream, I woke up and there was this ugly stuffed toy in the bed next to me instead of Sally. It was so shocking to me I actually woke up! My heart was racing like I’d been running fast. I was sweating and panting, too. At that moment I was so agitated I stretched out my hand to check whether it was really Sally or that freaky toy in the bed next to me. Thankfully it was Sally, of course. It was, literally, a nightmare.“
“We are not just having more intense dreams right now, but are also remembering them more vividly, too”
When we sleep, our brains shift several times between two states known as REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM. If either of these states are disrupted, it can leave us feeling irritable and moody the next day. Although the evidence isn’t conclusive, neurologists think that when we’re in REM sleep our brain is consolidating memories from the day, and when we are in non-REM mode our brains are rejuvenating themselves like exhausted athletes. Both states are equally important to feeling well rested.
Chris and I talked about how his dream was an example of catastrophising. His subconscious mind was leaping to the very worst possible outcome, which, in his case, was Sally leaving him. This is a way of thinking some of us have when we’re feeling anxious. Other similar tendencies we may notice are spiralling thought patterns and obsessing over “what if” scenarios – which leads our minds to assuming ever-more negative outcomes.
By exploring his fear and hearing Chris say how unlikely it was for Sally to leave him – they are fortunate in having a loving and secure relationship – we were able to reduce the fear that had caused the frightening dream, while minimising the chance of it ever being repeated.
Last week, Chris shared with me some other tools he’s finding helpful to help him get a restful, nightmare-free sleep. “I stop looking at my phone or any screens about an hour before I go to bed,” he said. “It seems to switch off my mind. Plus, I try and read a book for a bit, too – even a couple of pages seems to help.” Chris described how he and Sally are keeping to a routine: going to bed at the same time each night and not eating later than 7.00pm. These are two powerful habits which sleep scientists say can help prepare our bodies to have a better chance of restful sleep.
“I haven’t yet taken the plunge with a cup of cocoa every evening,” said Chris, smiling at the end of the session. “I’m not quite ready to become like my parents yet.”