In the COVID pandemic, preliminary research and anecdotal experience suggest that for some individuals nocturnal dream experiences have become vivid and recur regularly. Dream content may involve themes of helplessness, anxiety, fear about being infected or worry about death or debility.
These dreams do not necessarily rise to the level of nightmares. In a typical night’s sleep of about 8 hours, a person may cycle through perhaps 4 or 5 rapid eye movement (REM) phases, in which dream activity is common Fortunately for most people, our central and spinal motor pathways are inhibited so actual enactment of dream narratives is confined to the mind and sleeping body in bed. However, those exposed to traumatic experiences such as combat, crime, refugee status or assault, or who suffer from neurodegenerative diseases of the brain, can be at risk for developing REM Behavior Disorder, a potentially serious condition that endangers the sleeper’s safety and that of other individuals in the sleeper’s proximity.
Contrary to Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic perspective that dream material is a superhighway to our unconscious, COVID-19 dreams are mirroring real-world challenges and suggest that dream material can be taken at face value; it does not necessarily represent a signal of a “deeper” disturbance in the psyche. COVID dream content can reflect people’s existential circumstances, in which there has been prolonged confinement at home, loss of intimate social exchange, unease about the unfolding course of the pandemic and the impact on people’s sense of financial and personal security and well-being.
Dreams are spontaneous creations of our minds and can provide clues and insights that we can use in our daily life. Dream content can inspire changes in our outlook on life and relationships and help to access one’s creative drive. Sleep research tells us that REM as well as slow-wave, deep sleep, are critical to our neural network efficiency and recall of information.
The good news is that behavioral sleep health research has shown that dream content, if recalled and documented, can serve as grist for self-exploration or for the psychotherapeutic mill. Working with a trained MH professional, an individual with recurring, non-traumatic dreams can learn to revise and harness the dream narrative in thought and on paper, mentally practicing during the day more proactive and self-empowering outcomes.
On a day-to-day basis, keeping a dream log might actually encourage the brain to remember more dream content. Some people like to hang devices called dream catchers above their sleeping area. Since dream content often evaporates quickly as we transition from sleep to wakefulness in the morning, it may be handy to have a notebook or recording device accessible nearby. Consumption of alcohol before bedtime may reduce our REM time at night and dampen our dream activity.
Nightmares are a different story. Persistent nightmares or Sleep Terror Disorder may be a sign of more significant unresolved trauma, exposure, or medical condition, and may merit consultation with a health care/mental health professional. Recent sleep research suggests that persistent nightmares may be a harbinger of more serious mental health challenges and may even be correlated with future suicidal behavior. One of the cardinal symptom clusters of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is sleep disturbance punctuated by nightmares, frequent awakenings, and flashbacks. However, Nightmare Disorder is a condition that can exist in the absence of specific trauma. Chronic sleep deprivation or fragmented sleep, as well as certain medications or illicit recreational chemicals, can predispose to nightmares. Melatonin, a commonly used supplement for sleep induction, has also been associated with the occurrence of unpleasant dreams.
The takeaway is that dream material is as subject to conscious, intentional modification as the irrational, self-defeating day thoughts or troubling emotions leading people to seek therapeutic guidance. We do not have to be completely beholden to our typical journeys into the dream world – by adopting daily strategies to modify our thinking and behavior, we can become editors rather than merely spectators of our nocturnal drama. A dream journal can be a personal treasure folded into a private diary. Perhaps that will set our minds at ease as we prepare for a restorative night’s sleep and fortify our resilience during this COVID-19 siege.
National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
Information in this blog is for educational purposes and is not intended to replace consultation or treatment with a health care/mental health professional.
Dr. Michael DeSanctis, Licensed Psychologist