Sleep during stressful and uncertain times
Globally during the coronavirus pandemic, people have reported experiencing more vivid dreams, remembering their dreams more, and having more nightmares. People are experiencing worse sleep in general. This has become apparent from the barrage of anecdotal evidence on social media, from surveys by academics, and from mainstream media reports. There are a range of theories for the occurrence of this phenomenon.
COVID-19 and isolation have produced a lot of stress and anxiety for millions of people. Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, and dreams, is one way our subconscious attempts to process intense emotions, especially negative ones from trauma and stress.
Emotions and memories from the day can influence what happens in dreams and one’s emotional response within a dream itself. The dreams we have tend to focus on emotional content most critical for survival and day-to-day functioning. For instance, a car crash or a fight with our partner will be more salient than what we ate for lunch two weeks ago. Withdrawal from our normal routines has left the subconscious space to also go over themes from our past – “unfinished business,” so to speak.
On top of this, less socialising is happening. As social beings we are motivated to have these connections, and it is an important part of our wellbeing. Our dreaming selves are sensitive to our social environment. As such, people may be seeing less of others in real life, but having more dreams of friends, family, even ex-partners, than they would during social isolation.
It may be possible that people are also struggling with split second dreams and sleep paralysis.
Split second dreams: Sometimes as people are falling asleep, they are reawakened by a myoclonic kick – a sudden brief muscle contraction or involuntary jerk. This appears to be a primitive reflex generated by the brain stem. Some theorise that this is left over from an evolutionary need to keep watch for danger. Others suggest that our brain mistakenly confuses the sudden release of muscle tension, especially with muscle groups that resist gravity, with free falling.
Sleep paralysis: During this transitional period of sleep onset, sensory experiences can be transformed into vaguely perceived or vivid hallucinations. Sleep paralysis is a phenomenon where an individual, while falling asleep or waking up, experiences involuntary immobility while in a conscious state. This is often accompanied by feelings of terror and fearful hallucinations such as an intruder in the room. This experience is consistent with known mechanisms of REM sleep, like muscle atonia.
Cheyne et al (1999) reviewed sleep paralysis and REM neurophysiology. They proposed that sensing a presence, fear, and auditory and visual hallucinations originate in a hyper-vigilant state started in the midbrain. The neural functions that regulate sleep are out of balance in a way that causes different sleep states to overlap. This results in the cells capable of sending the signals that would allow for complete arousal from the sleep state having difficulty in overcoming the signals sent by the cells that keep the brain in the sleep state.
Another common sleep paralysis experience, pressure on the chest, breathing difficulties, and pain, is thought to be a combination of the muscle paralysis and the threat-vigilance system. This is made worse by typical REM breathing patterns. In line with this, the individual attempts to breathe deeply but is unable to do so, creating a sensation of resistance, which the threat-vigilance system interprets as a threatening being sitting on the individual’s chest, suffocating them.
Individuals are awake but paralysed and feel vulnerable to attack. In accordance with the evolutionary threat vigilance adaptation, our bias to see an ambiguous situation as dangerous may be why any sensed presence is perceived as evil. Feeling helpless intensifies the effects of the threat response beyond the level of normal dreams, which may explain why visions during sleep paralysis are so vivid.
Overcoming the dream disturbances
The global intense dream phenomenon is likely a trauma or stress response. We are collectively going through a traumatic experience. These are difficult times for everyone. Anxiety has been shown in research to have a negative dream effect while finding ways to be at peace during the day will have a positive effect on dreams
Anxiety New Zealand offers COVID-19 coping resources created by psychologists on our website. We also have a 24/7 free Anxiety Helpline you can call, 0800 269 4389. It’s normal to need a little extra help at a time like this. Anxiety New Zealand offers therapy for people in Aotearoa New Zealand, even during different alert levels and lockdown, through zoom or over the phone. It is important to get support when this becomes an ongoing problem.
Here are a few sleep hygiene tips to improve sleep:
Maintain a sleep routine, if possible – go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark, and at a comfortable temperature.
Remove electronic devices, such as TVs, computers, and smart phones, from the bedroom.
Avoid large meals, caffeine, and alcohol before bedtime.
Get some exercise. Being physically active during the day can help you fall asleep more easily at night.
If you find your mind racing and awake during the middle of the night, get out of bed, and sit in a chair. This is to avoid your mind associating your bed with wakefulness or anxiety.