Our pandemic subconscious:Stress can affect the quality and length of sleep. Scientists have been collecting dream data during the coronavirus crisis, with surprising results
Flying bugs are a significant feature in my pandemic dreams, according to a survey of more than 2,000 people. Photograph: Juan Medina/Reuters
From going to bed too late thanks to endless scrolling through theories about the pandemic, to waking up in the night worrying, it is safe to say that Covid-19 is wreaking havoc with our sleep. A
major survey conducted by Kings College London with Ipsos Mori showed that two in five people in the UK have reported sleep disturbance. Prof Bobby Duffy, the research lead and director of the Policy Institute at Kings, says: “There is a clear relationship between increased stress and impact on sleep; 53% of those who said they found the crisis stressful reported sleep difficulties.” But many people around the world are also experiencing a new phenomenon: pandemic dreams.
Most of us dont often remember our dreams, but the anxieties of life in isolation and disruption to our normal sleep-wake cycles seem to be changing that. Several researchers are collecting dream data during the pandemic, including Dr Deirdre Barrett, a clinical and evolutionary psychologist at Harvard Medical School. She explains that, although it seems that we are dreaming more often, we are actually remembering them better because were sleeping more, but also waking up more during the night. “With more options to sleep, including napping in the day and longer lie-ins, dream recall is maximised, but you have to wake up out of a dream to remember it. We know that increased stress is a cause of waking frequently during the night.”
Barrett collects and analyses dreams from survivors of traumatic events, including 9/11. She is now analysing 4,000 pandemic dreams from more than 2,000 survey respondents. “There are huge commonalities between how our dreams respond to traumas and crises. With clear visual associations, dreams are more literal. After 9/11, people were dreaming of buildings falling, hijackers with knives and planes crashing into things,” she says.
Without singular images to focus on in dreamworld, we plug in our own visual metaphors. When Barrett analysed dreams after the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, she found that people reported “lots of monsters and invisible assailants rather than actual gas attacks”. Some dreams she has collected during the current pandemic are literal – “people are having trouble breathing or spiking a fever” – but many are abstract. After all, we know coronavirus is there, but we cant see it. “There are earthquakes, tidal waves and tornadoes; every kind of uncontrollable disaster. But the biggest dream cluster is bugs; flying bugs attacking the dreamer, cockroaches swarming, masses of squirming worms.”
More sleep generally means greater scope for REM sleep – the last stage, when we typically dream. Waking up more often during the night may mean better dream recall, but it can leave us feeling exhausted the next day. As for what we see in our dreams, research has long suggested that their contents are linked to our waking mindset. We process intense memories, current stressors and emotions during REM sleep; our dreams are often heavy with symbolism and strange renderings of reality. It could also be that, as life is reduced to the size of a few rooms in lockdown, we have far less daily stimuli to draw from and are subconsciously digging around in the past.
Those who have worked in crisis situations are familiar with the effects stress can have on dreams. Naveen Cavale is a plastic surgeon at Kings College Hospital in south London, specialising in reconstruction after traumatic injuries. Unpredictability and high-stake interventions are his baseline. Cavale says he usually “sleeps very well”, but this was challenged when he travelled to Gaza in 2015, just after the ceasefire was declared, to help repair the catastrophic injuries of victims of the conflict. Anticipating the crossing from Israel to Gaza kept him up at night, but the vividness of his dreams when he got to Gaza was even more striking.
“I was shown a video by a surgeon of one of the busiest nights in the hospital. True chaos. Im a very visual person and would lie awake in my hotel bed playing it over and over in my head,” he says. Cavale has visited Gaza 15 times now, and sleeps well there, but after visiting will often dream in vistas that have affected him. “I see the spindly minarets of mosques, fires inside half blown-up buildings and colossal craters where bombs have taken out entire blocks.”
Some people say that they are sleeping better than ever during lockdown, and may be able to apply a “whatever gets you through” mentality of napping with abandon. For others who are struggling, it may be helpful to think about underlying drivers of stress and its impact on sleep. But as someone who keeps dreaming of my body being invaded by wormy parasites, it is strangely soothing to learn that Im not the only one.
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