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Why you're having vivid dreams during the pandemic

Pandemic dreams are a new common phenomenon across the globe.

You are definitely not alone. A recent study by Deindre Barett, a Harvard psychologist, shows a significant increase in unusual and vivid dreams around the globe. Why is this happening and what are the second order effects of it?

What are dreams?

Dreams are a small peak into the complex way in which our brains make sense of the world. They usually don't make a lot of sense themselves and are rarely representative of your desires or beliefs. Think of them as a background process that keeps your brain in tune with the world around you1.

Dreams become more vivid when there are changes in your sleep quality and timing. Stress, anxiety & uncertainty affect your sleep quality. Think of the night before a big event like a job interview. Falling asleep gets that much harder, and your sleep quality is usually worse. This leads to more vivid dreams.

Dreams as a function of REM sleep

Dreams mostly occur during the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of your sleep 2. Every night you go through 3 different types of sleep - Light, Deep & REM - in a cyclical process that lasts about 90 minutes. The time you spend in each type of sleep depends on the time of night. Earlier in the night you spend majority of the 90 minutes in light & deep sleep. Earlier in the mornings is when you get most of your REM sleep.

The amount of REM you get each night is also controlled by how much REM sleep you've been getting over the past few days. Get too little REM sleep? Your body compensates for it by spending longer periods in REM sleep. This is why you experience a lot of dreams in the morning after a heavy night of drinking. Alcohol is a REM depressant and once its effects wear off, your body tries to catch up on REM sleep. Its a phenomenon called REM rebound.

Amount of time in REM this cycle = f(Current time, Amount of REM sleep over the past few days)

The pandemic has caused many changes in the way we live and work. Not having a morning commute means many people have the chance to sleep in. If you've been REM deprived in the past, and are spending more time in the morning sleeping, you are in REM rebound. This can lead to more vivid and frequent dreams. If your sleep schedule is inconsistent, you are getting a lot of REM on some nights and much less on others. This also leads to REM rebound and more vivid dreams.

Heightened dream recall

The emotions felt on a daily basis govern our dreams. Bizarre and negative dreams are a way of coping with everyday stressors. Dreams activate a neuron called serotonin 5-HT2A 3. This neuron turns off a part of the brain called the dorsal prefrontal cortex. The result is “emotional disinhibition” a state in which emotions flood the consciousness.

We dream many times a night but our dream recall is usually poor. A sudden increase in anxiety and uncertainity leads to decrease in sleep quality. Poor sleep quality results in more night-time awakenings. Its much easier to remember your dreams when you keep waking up in the middle of the night.

The pandemic has raised anxiety & stress levels across society. The dreams we experience reflect these emotions. Throw in high dream recall, and you get vivid, weird & frequent dreams.

None of this is cause for much alarm. If you are generally REM deprived, your body will catch up to it. If you're sleep schedule is inconsistent, switch to a consistent wake up time. If your dreams are bothering you, there is early evidence that "dream mastery" techniques can reduce the intensity 4.

Humans are good at coping with changes long-term. As we start accepting this new normal, odds are these "Pandemic dreams" will subside.


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References

  1. Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep

  2. The Possible Functions of REM Sleep and Dreaming

  3. The role of serotonin 5-HT2A receptors in memory and cognition

  4. Mediators of Change in Imagery Rescripting and Imaginal Exposure for Nightmares: Evidence From a Randomized Wait-List Controlled Trial