If you’ve been shaken awake in the middle of the night because of an intense dream over the past few weeks, you’re not alone. Sites like Twitter have seen the hashtag #quarantinedreams trend, and the tag is filled with descriptions of dreams filled with earthquakes, lava, and lost hands. It seems that the current state of the world is causing people to have more vivid dreams during quarantine.
But how do you explain it? Well, to fully understand the phenomenon, you have to take a look at sleep, dreams, and their functions. “The role of sleep is that everything that happened during the day gets filed into long-term memories,” sleep expert Tara Youngblood, CEO and chief scientist at Chili Technology, tells Woman’s Day. “As your mind works through processing that, it works through what to hang on to and what to throw away.” This is why you’re able to call up important or special things from a week ago (like when you baked your first boule of bread) but not the seemingly ineffectual things (like what you had for lunch last Tuesday.)
“With the pandemic, what you’re seeing is a long-term playout of stress,” Youngblood says. “Your mind is trying to figure out, ‘Is this something I’m going to have to adapt to? Or is this something I’m going to be able to move on from?’”
Stressors have a big impact on the content of dreams, Jennifer Hoskins-Tomko, LCSW, owner of Clarity Health Solutions in Jupiter, FL, tells Woman’s Day. “My clients who are firefighters, when they talk about their dreams, they dream that they forget something — a boot, their hat,” she says. “My police officer clients often dream about a weapon not firing in their dreams. All of this is to say that your dreams help you to deal with a particular emotion. A lot of times, that emotion is stress.”
But it’s not just the content of the dreams that are affected by stress. The reason why your dreams are so vivid, and why you’re remembering them in such detail, is connected to stress.
“Think about consciousness as rungs on a ladder that you’re descending,” Youngblood says. “The top of that ladder is closer to consciousness, while the bottom rungs of the latter are deep sleep.” Stress keeps you higher up on that ladder, closer to consciousness. And when you’re closer to consciousness, you remember your dreams more vividly. But it also means you’re never falling into a deep, restful sleep — which explains why you’re also likely feeling extra tired these days, even though you’re technically sleeping through the night.
Luckily, you don’t have to wait for this stressor to pass to get a better night’s sleep. According to Hoskins-Tomko, there are a few things you can do to help you snooze sans wild dreams.
Be positive before bed
With all the bad news these days, Hoskins-Tomko says it’s so important to try and create a positive atmosphere around bedtime. “Do what you can to make sure you’re falling asleep to positive thoughts,” she says.
That could mean using a meditation app while you’re falling asleep, or thinking positive thoughts as you doze off. As long as it’s soothing to you, it will work. “This way, your brain is already primed in those early stages of sleep for positivity,” she says.
Don’t stress if you wake up in the middle of the night
If you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night because of dreams, the worst thing you can do is force yourself back to sleep. “Give yourself permission to get up, walk around, and let your brain reset,” Hoskins-Tomko says. If you remember your dream, write it down — this might help dissipate the negative feelings you had around it. You can put your soothing music on again to help yourself doze off, too.
Write your dreams down
“When you wake up after a vivid dream, immediately write down everything you can remember,” Hoskins-Tomko says. Write down the content, but make sure to note how you felt in the dream — scared, stressed, happy, sad. “Those feelings can help you identify what you’re actually dealing with while you’re awake,” she says. “Often, my clients will say ‘I feel weird,’ but in their dreams, they have an overwhelming feeling of sadness. Those dream feelings can linger during the day, but you might not be able to pinpoint them.” That’s why it’s important to write down your dreams as soon as you wake up. Hoskins-Tomko says you tend to forget specific details, like feelings, mere minutes after waking.
It may be a while until you feel back to normal again, but a good night’s sleep is an important stepping stone in that process. So keep a notebook by your bed — you never know what those vivid dreams are trying to tell you about your feelings.
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