Pandemic dreams: Have you been having unusual dreams lately? Here’s why

This is not the first time that such variations in dream patterns have emerged. Crises inevitably pave the way to collective unrest which in turn affect sleep cycles   | Photo Credit: Illustration: Satheesh Vellinezhi

Ever turned into a giant Y-shaped antibody to physically fight the novel Coronavirus and its many bulbous projections? This is not a scene straight out of a low budget kids’ sci-fi movie: it’s from a vivid dream a friend had recently. It seemed unusual. Till I asked around.

As it turns out, many among us (including yours truly) have been having vivid, often bizarre dreams lately and more frequently, thanks to the relentless pandemic dominating our lives. The stressors of the day are inevitably encroaching into the quiet hours of the night, in the form of disjointed, longer than usual bursts of dreams: some brightly detailed, some mildly disturbing.

Before diving into what causes this, here are a few repeated themes that seem to dominate.

Even when in deep slumber, many seem to be adhering to hygiene and social distancing norms: Mercy Johny, a Gen Z-er, says even in her dream she ensured she washed her hands with soap and water, before gorging on mutton biryani delivered by masked men (she also made sure they sanitised their hands), lugging big cauldrons.

Some people are having repeated dreams of wild animals attacking them (in Nahshon Benjamin’s case, a lion, a tiger and two black panthers, specifically). Some are meeting loved ones who have passed away a long time ago. Lastly, the classic ‘falling off a cliff’ trope has also been stronger.

Though these are wider themes, certain elements that appear in the dreams point to a largely universal aspect: the fear of impending doom. Which is also why many seem to find themselves in situations where they are being physically attacked by a tangible entity — whether it is a particularly ferocious animal or the virus itself.

The frequency of such dreams have soared globally, so much so that there is even a website (I Dream of Covid) that catalogues COVID-19-related dreams from across the world. The website has collected dreams from as early as March. There is also a hashtag doing the rounds : #pandemicdreams across Twitter, reddit and Facebook, with many narrating their worst nightmares. For most, sharing the dreams with others, seems to be cathartic.

The basics

Dreams are highly individualistic and depend a lot on what people remember. To understand these dreams better, we need to understand our sleep cycles.

“We have different stages of sleep: the Non-REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep and the REM sleep. In the Non-REM sleep there are stages 1, 2 and 3. It doesn’t have to be in that particular order. In about every 90 minutes to 120 minutes, we get a REM period,” says Dr N Ramakrishnan, senior consultant in Sleep Medicine and Director of Chennai-based Nithra Institute of Sleep Sciences. If somebody sleeps for six hours, there will be about three to four REM periods.

“The earliest REM period might last for only five minutes; the consequent REM periods will be prolonged. The early morning REM periods are usually the longest,” A person is normally believed to have five to six dreams in a night, but most of it is not remembered. Any dream that occurs during the Non-REM part, which constituted 75% of our sleep, is usually forgotten. “In the morning, we are getting out of a REM sleep. That’s why we remember the early morning dreams so vividly,” continues Dr Ramakrishnan.

In the wee hours

This is not the first time that such variations in dream patterns have emerged. Crises inevitably pave the way to collective unrest which in turn affect sleep cycles. Disturbed sleep cycles, with the lack of routine or excess time in hands, are common during this lockdown. “During previous viral epidemics like SARS and even MERS, there have been increased incidents of narcolepsy (excessive daytime sleepiness). Having insomnia or narcolepsy increases the possibilities of having vivid dreams,” continues Dr Ramakrishnan, adding that if such conditions persist, a sleep expert should be consulted.

He adds that anxiety can trigger more intense dreams. “Worry causes sleeplessness, leading to troublesome dreams. People are watching a lot about COVID-19 and that is what they sometimes try to reproduce at night too,” says pulmonologist and sleep expert Dr MS Kanwar, who is also the Director of Advanced Sleep Disorder Institute, New Delhi.

Dr Kanwar adds that people often complain about vague breathlessness, which is again associated with anxiety and stress. Obsessive tracking of the latest numbers and updates regarding the pandemic, only makes it worse, he says.

While oversleeping might not directly affect dreams, sleeping for longer hours can lead to an increased number of dream spells, especially during the second half (vaguely after 2 am). “The first half hardly gets one short spell, but in the second half of sleep, the dream spells happen more often. The dream content goes up,” says Dr Kanwar. Alternately, if one is anxious, sleep will be broken, which will in turn lead to a dip in content. In the past couple of months, he says, people have visited him concerned about dreams that specifically feature family members falling prey to COVID-19.

Even in the past, crises of this magnitude have brought forth similar patterns — for instance, in the US, following the 9/11 attacks, many complained of having nightmares and specific dream spells. Those who were physically closer to the incident, seemed to be affected more.

Closer home, Dr Ramakrishnan says, during the tsunami of December 2004 and more recently the Chennai floods of 2015, many complained of dreams that featured elements from the tragedy. The tsunami was an unknown phenomenon to many, which amplified the sense of fear and uncertainity.

Engaging in an activity that calms oneself right before sleep can reduce the risk of nightmares. “Staying off screens at least a few hours before sleep will be helpful,” says Dr Kanwar adding meditation and yoga also help.

More than anything, words of reassurance work magic, concludes Dr Kanwar.

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Printable version | Mar 4, 2021 12:14:32 PM |

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