Sweet dreams? Not for everyone

Health & Wellness

April 29, 2020

Virus fears are messing with our sleep, but we can take steps to quiet our minds.

By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist, mgilmer1@iuhealth.org

It’s happened again. That familiar dream where you forget your school locker combination, or you forget to go to class for a big test, or maybe you forget to put on pants.

That last one, unfortunately, might be all too real in these days of social isolation when many of us are working from home, teaching our kids from home and stressing about a global virus from home. Getting dressed is optional.

I don’t dream much, or I should say I don’t remember my dreams, but one recurring theme is a sensation of falling and hitting the bed with a thud. The experts say that common dream theme can be an indication of insecurities, instabilities and anxieties. The dreamer may be feeling overwhelmed by some situation in his or her waking hours.

One new father said he never remembers his dreams, but he did have one recently that stuck with him – in a good way.

Because he is working from home, he has had the chance to spend much more time with his 9-month-old son. The two have started having “conversations” by the dad mimicking his son’s squeaks.

“I will change the tone of mine and he will copy that. It’s so simple, but I think it’s the greatest thing ever that we’re actually communicating.”

That’s real life. In the man’s dream, however, his baby boy has suddenly learned to talk, and the two are having in-depth conversations.

“It was a little creepy because he was still in his 9-month-old body,” the man said about the dream, but he woke up feeling pretty proud of his genius son.

“I’m sure it was sparked by finally recognizing the positive spin on all of this – that I’m able to see him develop 24/7,” he said, instead of dad going to the office and baby going to daycare.

Maybe you’ve heard the expression “Dreams are a window to the soul.” If that’s true, we wondered what our dreams say about us during the time of COVID-19.

We asked Dr. Stephanie Stahl, director of the IU Health Sleep Medicine Fellowship and assistant professor of clinical neurology, what our dreams might be trying to tell us these days.

Why are more people having weird dreams during the COVID-19 pandemic?

When people are stressed or anxious, sleep can be disrupted throughout the night, Dr. Stahl said. Having a drink to calm our nerves during the day can often backfire at night, leading to an increase in dreams. And the more we wake up through the night, the more likely we are to remember our dreams.

Dreams can also reflect fragments of our daily experiences, she said. “So if you are feeling more stress and negative emotions, dreams are more likely to be negative or to be nightmares. And the more intense your emotions are about your daily events, the more likely these experiences will be incorporated into your dreams.”

It should come as no surprise that if you’re focused on one topic before bedtime, you might be more likely to dream about it. So, Dr. Stahl said, if you are obsessively watching the news or scrolling through social media about the coronavirus close to bedtime, you may be more likely to have dreams related to that topic, or perhaps related to the emotions you were feeling when you fell asleep.

That’s where the anxiety of missed meetings, failed tests and forgotten assignments comes into play.

Why do we sometimes have vivid, whimsical dreams when other times we barely remember them or don’t dream at all?

We dream during both REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement) stages of sleep, Dr. Stahl said. REM sleep occurs at intervals during the night and is characterized by more dreaming and a faster pulse. During the deep stages of NREM sleep, the body repairs and regrows tissues, builds bone and muscle and strengthens the immune system. We are less likely to remember dreams during NREM sleep.

“We typically only recall dreams if we are awoken from that particular dream. If you are sleeping soundly through the night, you may not recall any dreams,” she said. Some medications can also affect dreams.

Why do we dream? What is happening in the brain when we dream?

After years of research, we still are not completely certain why we dream, Dr. Stahl said. However, dreams may play a role in integration and consolidation of our daily thoughts and experiences into memories. From a personal standpoint, the sleep medicine physician said most of her dreams seem odd. The most peculiar ones are those that appear to be completely unrelated to waking life.

Are weird dreams ever unhealthy? Can they affect the quality of sleep or have an impact on overall health?

Dreams themselves are not unhealthy, the physician said, although frequent nightmares can lead to or worsen insomnia.

“Getting adequate amounts of quality sleep is important for many aspects of your health, including memory and learning,” she said. “While some awakenings throughout the night are normal, frequent awakenings, which in turn may cause increased dream recall, can be a sign of another medical problem, such as sleep apnea.”

How can someone feel better after an unsettling dream? Are there strategies to prevent or manage strange dreams?

Deep breathing, focusing on reducing your heart rate, and avoiding the tendency to examine the dream are all beneficial, she said. Practice better sleep habits, including avoiding caffeine within eight hours of bedtime, cutting out nicotine and alcohol, avoiding bright lights and electronics close to bedtime, and skipping high-carb foods in the evening.

Before bed, practice relaxation or meditation techniques, such as deep breathing, visual guided imagery and mindfulness. Calming music can also help. This and thinking positive thoughts might send you to bed in a more upbeat mood with less chance for bad dreams.

If you suffer from frequent nightmares, you might benefit from evaluation and treatment by a medical professional, Dr. Stahl said. Your doctor might want to rule out other medical problems or change medications. Treatments including image rehearsal therapy (IRT) can be beneficial.

IRT is cognitive-behavioral treatment for reducing the number and severity of nightmares, such as those suffered by people with post-traumatic stress disorder. In IRT therapy, a patient works with a therapist to “reprogram” nightmares to become less frightening by writing down and rehearsing different, happier endings.

Self-care during this time is more important than ever. Be kind to yourself and others.

Sweet dreams.