Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, we’ve had to navigate through new challenges in all aspects of our lives. These added stressors are taking a toll — even on our sleep. Many people are reporting greater disrupted sleep, ranging from vivid dreams to nightmares to insomnia.
“At the most simplistic level, everybody’s schedules are really disrupted with online classes and people working from home — just the typical routines of getting up at a particular time and going through the activities of daily living have been really disrupted,” said Steve Smith, an associate professor and director of clinical training in UC Santa Barbara’s Department of Counseling, Clinical, and School Psychology.
These disturbances can include basic changes in our sleep schedules and self-regulation that disrupt sleeping and dreaming patterns.
The phenomenon of unusual sleep experiences during the pandemic may be due to “emotional overloading,” according to Smith, who teaches the course Sleep: Biological, Psychological, and Artistic Perspectives. “Everybody is really going through a tough time. It’s a lot of emotions and feelings to process. And of course, that’s going to spill over into our dreaming life, too.”
Smith, a licensed psychologist with a private practice in Santa Barbara, stated that many of his therapy patients are describing remembering their dreams more and having more nightmares.
He pointed out that everyone dreams, but whether or not we remember them – or how much we remember – can vary from person to person. The amount we dream remains roughly the same each night. In stressful times we are not dreaming more, although we may be likelier to have nightmares and remember our dreams because of their greater vivid nature.
From a scientific perspective, it’s not clear why we dream. However, we do know that dreaming is vital for our survival. “If you prevent a mammal from dreaming, it will die eventually,” Smith said.
Further, “there is reason to think that dreams are important in memory consolidation and helping us make sense of our daily experience,” Smith remarked. “I think dreams are essential because they help us regulate our affect and cope with the stresses of our daily life. It does seem to be our minds’ way of processing information from the day and consolidating that information in a way that we can make use of.”
The mind seems to worry at night in the same way that it worries during the day, according to Smith. While asleep, the brain’s language parts are less active. But the imagery and visualization parts are still up and running, explaining why our worries and thoughts manifest themselves in “more symbolic” and “less linguistic ways.”
So how attentive should we be to our dreams?
“I think by paying attention to our dreams we can have a clearer sense of some of the things that bother us even if we’re not fully consciously aware of them during our waking life … But that said, in a life full of stress and anxiety, if you’ve got stressful and anxious dreams, I don’t know that they are telling us that much more new information that we don’t have already other than maybe some of the particular things that we might be worried about,” Smith said.
The importance of sleep cannot be overstated. Under the idea that most healthy adults require eight hours of sleep a night, Smith uses the example of sleeping seven hours per night for 10 nights in a row. By losing an hour of sleep for 10 consecutive days, “you’re doing as well as somebody who’s legally drunk [in terms of cognitive functioning].”
Getting inadequate sleep can impair our ability to learn and problem solve, as well as to cope with our emotions and stress. It can even jeopardize our physical health, as we become more prone to sickness and injury.
For better sleep, one should consider factors such as food allergies, which can increase the chance of having nightmares. More broadly, practicing good sleep hygiene can boost our general quality of sleep, reduce nightmares and improve our overall mental and physical well-being. This includes keeping a consistent sleep schedule by going to bed at the same time each night and waking up at the same time each morning. Other good sleep habits are to avoid screens at least 30 minutes before going to bed or using blue light filters, and not to exercise or eat before going to bed.
Smith also cautions against prolonged use of sleep medication, which can reduce dreaming in “rapid eye movement” or REM sleep, when most of our dreaming occurs. “There’s not very good evidence that melatonin does much of anything other than to make you feel a little more sleepy, but it doesn’t necessarily help you sleep,” he said.
“I would urge people, especially student-age kinds of people, to avoid [long-term use of] sleeping medications and other drugs that might facilitate sleeping. I think that that’s not good for overall health in the long run.”