COVID Dreams: The Pandemic’s Effect On Sleep and Mental Health

Share

Sleep is a balm to the mind and spirit. It is our time to restore our mind and heal our body so if you aren’t getting enough of it, you should investigate. (Sergey Mironov/Shutterstock)

The Epoch Times

By Lily Kelly

Research from the Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health at Australia’s Monash University has shown that the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the sleep habits and dreams of people across the world.

The findings came out of a global survey on mental health and sleep, which was carried out during the pandemic with over 2000 participants, 45 percent of whom said they experienced changes in their dreaming. The results also showed that participants—who were monitored for 12 months—had more negative dreams, with many experiencing nightmares or dreams of threatening scenarios such as disasters and wars.

Co-author of the study, Melinda Jackson, a senior lecturer and sleep psychologist at the Turner, told Monash University’s Lens that many people described a higher volume of dreams in the pandemic’s early stages.

“These dreams were described in high definition—more vivid and colourful than normal, with increased visual clarity—but often had a strange or bizarre twist to them.”

Jackson also said that the participants’ dreams during the pandemic’s early stages were more negative, with individuals experiencing more nightmares and dreaming of threatening scenarios such as disasters and wars.

“I can’t remember much now, but the dreams have been disturbing, colourful, and in some cases frightening—large-scale death, generally by war. Sometimes they wake me up,” said one participant.

Epoch Times Photo
The participants’ dreams during the pandemic’s early stages were more negative, the study found.(Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley/Shutterstock)

How the Pandemic Influenced Sleep

Jackson believes that a possible reason for the changes is threat-simulation theory, which argues people experience more vivid and bad dreams during times of stress to prepare them for their current threatening reality.

“Increases in vivid dreams and nightmares have been observed after wars, natural disasters, and terrorist attacks like 9/11 ,” said Jackson.

The level of stress hormones experienced by a person also has a considerable role in the disruption of normal sleep patterns.

“Our brains are actually very active during rapid eye movement sleep, the stage of sleep where we experience more bizarre and vivid dreams,” said the study’s co-author Hailey Meaklim, a psychologist and PhD candidate at the Turner.

“Our visuospatial regions of the brain become super-active, along with our emotion and memory centres. This can all be heightened in times of stress, and we get increased vivid dreams and nightmares.”

Another reason for the altered dreaming experience could be the changes in sleep patterns that arose during the pandemic.

“We saw changes to sleep-wake patterns around the world, with many people able to sleep in later due to lockdowns/work-from-home requirements,” said Jackson.

“We experience more REM sleep towards the end of the night, which can be curtailed if people set an alarm to get up early for work.”

“This natural sleep extension we saw during the pandemic may have led to increased dream recall, simply because they were sleeping in longer and having more REM sleep.”

REM sleep is the sleep state where the brain is most active, which seems to make it more vulnerable to fragmentation for people that experience chronic hyperarousal—persistently on high alert.

Epoch Times Photo
In times of stress, people experience more negative and vivid dreams. (eggeegg/Shutterstock)

Pandemic Dreams Had a Survival Theme

“There was a real ‘survival theme’ to pandemic dreams,” said Meaklim.

“There were lots of dreams about death and people worrying about the safety of their family and friends. It was a scary and uncertain time for people, and these anxious feelings continued on into people’s dreams.”

One study participant said that they experienced nightmares about their loved ones being ill or dying. Another dreamed about masks, making them, and running out of them.

However, not all participants experienced pandemic-specific dreams. Meaklim said that although a few dreamt about catching the virus or protective precautions such as masks and social distancing, COVID-specific content was only a “small sub-theme” of participants’ dreams.

The study also noted after breaking the participants into three groups (those who developed insomnia during the pandemic, those who had experienced sleeping difficulty before the pandemic, and those who slept well) that those who had the most difficulty sleeping were more likely to experience a change in dreaming during the pandemic and that their dreams had a negative tone.

The group that developed insomnia during the pandemic reported the largest percentages of dream changes, with 55 percent of the participants experiencing strange dreams. The remainder reported a smaller percentage. However, they exceeded the group of participants that did not have difficulty sleeping, of whom only 36 percent reported changes in dreaming.

Additionally, when the researchers employed the Liguistic Inquiry Word Count to compare the answers of the different groups they found that those who had developed insomnia during the pandemic had more anxious and death-related dreams.

“Overall, people with insomnia, when finally asleep, had more negative and scary dreams than people who slept well,” said Meaklim.

Insomnia and Memory

Meaklim said that the team have several theories as to why people with insomnia experienced more changes in dreaming than those who slept well.

“One is that if people wake up directly after a dream, they’re more likely to recall it,” she said.

Therefore, insomniacs find dreams easier to recall as they wake up frequently throughout their sleep.  Additionally, according to the REM instability hypothesis of insomnia, people with insomnia have more unstable REM sleep, waking up during the period of sleep where dreaming is at its peak.

However, insomnia does not assist your memory outside of dreams.

“Sleep is an important process for memory formation and consolidation, and sleep loss is known to impair next-day memory function,” said Jackson in an email to The Epoch Times.

She said that insomnia had been linked to impaired declarative memory—memory of events and items.

“Therefore, it is possible that memory complaints reported during the pandemic could be related to the increase in insomnia experienced by many people around the world since 2020.”

Alarm,Clock,Ringing.woman,Waking,Up,In,Early,Morning,For,Work.obstructive
Understanding the root cause of your insomnia is the first step to getting a good night’s sleep. (eldar nurkovic/Shutterstock)

Effect of Insomnia and Nightmares on Mental Health

Jackson said that chronic insomnia—a long-term pattern of sleeping difficulty— can lead to various health issues, both mental and physical.

She said that a person suffering from chronic insomnia is at a greater risk of developing conditions such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes. They are also more prone to accidents and errors both at work and on roads.

In terms of mental health, Jackson said that difficulty sleeping is a risk factor for the “onset and maintenance” of mental conditions such as depression and anxiety.

“Longitudinal studies have shown that insomnia confers a 4 times increased risk of developing depression years later, even if you have not had a depressive episode in the past,” she said. “Therefore, it is really important to address sleep issues early on to prevent potential mental health issues from emerging.”

“We did see that dream changes were associated with worse mental health symptoms over time, and this effect was more pronounced in individuals with insomnia.”

Fortunately, the participants reported a decrease in such vivid dreams and nightmares around three months after the study began, and another decrease was observed between the six and 12-month follow-ups, with most people finding improvements in their dreaming and difficulty falling asleep dissipating after the initial anxiety and stress created by the pandemic passed.

Treating Insomnia and Nightmares

Jackson noted that for those who did experience difficulties with insomnia and bad dreams during the pandemic, there are now promising treatments for both issues.

“So we urge people to seek help if they’re still struggling with their sleep,” she said.

“The strongest evidence-based treatment for insomnia is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), which is effective at reducing symptoms to the same extent as medication, and has longer lasting effects.”

She said that usually, a psychologist that is specifically trained in sleep disorders administers the CBT-I treatment.

CBT-I explores the relationship between the way a person thinks, their behaviour, and how they sleep with a psychologist trained in CBT-I therapy helping to identify thoughts, feelings, and behaviours that are causing insomnia.

“Not many people are aware of this therapy and remain untreated as they don’t want to take a pill for their sleep,” Jackson said. “We suggest speaking to your GP about these behavioural treatment options.”

The researchers hope that the results of this study can assist in delivering better mental health recovery following the pandemic and enliven the development of new treatments for insomnia and mental health issues.