Quarantine is teaching us lessons aplenty. We’re realizing that, actually, there’s a surprising amount that can be done from home. Also, that perhaps those hideously early meetings and school starts were unnecessary all along. We’re realizing that we can do so much more when we’re not stuck in traffic. Also, that we can be quite creative with a can of beans and dregs from the freezer, when the time calls for it. Quarantine is frustrating, but also allowing us to gain a greater understanding of ourselves, sans zombie mode.
Patiently riding the waves of weirdness is of utmost importance right now. Checking in with loved ones, getting ready in the morning even if you won’t see another soul, and having a clear divide between work and free time are all vital. When society feels anything but normal, these seemingly small things go a long way in boosting our mental health.
But what about these weird schedules, eh? For the self-motivated, it’s a blessing. For those who need more structure, the struggle is very real. Many of us are ditching the alarm clocks, sleeping in a little later and generally being guided a bit more intuitively by what our bodies need. The result? Some pretty crazy dreams, it seems! From man-eating garlic to the Lost City of Atlantis run by zebra, it seems the brain of everyone I know has gone a bit bonkers. Eager to delve deeper, I caught up with psychiatrist and sleep expert, Dr. Michael Grandner. Director of the Sleep & Health Research Program and Behavioral Sleep Medicine Clinic at the University of Arizona, Dr. Grandner had a wealth of insight into what’s causing this phenomenon, as well as what we can do to best nurture our sleep health at this time.
Q: So, it seems everyone is experiencing loads of crazy dreams right now. Care to share your thoughts on why this might be happening?
A: There are a number of reasons why this might be happening. The main thing, though, is that we are all going through some big, important stuff right now. We are wrestling with a global pandemic, changes to society, losing jobs, worrying about getting sick and worrying about those that might be getting sick. There are a lot of big things happening, and that might be working its way into our dreams. After all, dreams play important roles in integrating daytime experiences, managing emotional memory, and making sense of the world. And there’s a lot that we need to be making sense of.
The second reason might be that some people are experiencing changes to their REM sleep—the stage where a lot of these dreams happen. Some people might be getting more REM sleep, due to sleeping in later (since REM sleep happens more at the end of the night), allowing for more of these types of dreams. It might also be because some people are sleeping less, causing the REM sleep they are getting to be more short and intense. Both of these situations can cause more of these types of dreams. Also, it might also be the case that people are experiencing more shallow sleep, waking them up from their dreams more, causing more memories for them—in these cases people might not be dreaming more but remembering them more.
Q: Are we dreaming more vividly or sleeping less deeply?
A: It’s hard to know what is happening out there. Certainly, there are some ongoing research studies looking to figure this out. Some people are probably sleeping less deeply—perhaps due to stress. Also, some people might be dreaming more vividly, due to everything going on. Or maybe both!
Q: Can it be helpful to keep a dream diary?
A: Keeping a dream diary can be a fantastic way to not only remember and learn from your dreams, but it might serve as a great reminder of all of the dreams you might be having right now. The diary can help you see more about what is going on in your own mind.
Q: What about recurring dreams? Any thoughts on the significance of those or why they occur?
A: Recurring dreams probably signify that there is either a recurrent issue in your life, or that different issues are represented in your mind in similar ways. Many people get recurring dreams or—more commonly—recurring themes, where the dream is similar but not exactly the same. These dreams probably don’t signify anything especially good or bad, just that you are conceptualizing issues in a familiar way.
Q: How can someone experiencing traumatic dreams look after their mental health?
A: There are many things that can be done. Mental health practitioners can definitely help. Often, just improving your sleep quality will have the effect of reducing disturbing dreams as well. Some medications can reduce disturbing dreams, and there are some non-medication therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy, imagery rehearsal, and lucid dream training, which can improve the dream experience.
Q: Is there any truth to certain foods eaten before bed making us dream more?
A: Probably not. There are some small, scattered studies on things like certain cheeses, but in general, remembering dreams has more to do with your ability to get into REM sleep (allowing you to have the dreams) and also wake from it (causing you to become aware of the dreams).
Q: Could all these dreams actually be our body’s way of helping us process uncertainty and stress?
A: For sure! Dreams evolved to help us survive and make our way in the world. They are not there to hold us back. Dreams occur all the time, and exceptionally vivid dreams may just mean that you are going through something really important right now. It might be a good idea to take comfort in that, knowing that the mind has these amazing tools to help us navigate the world and prepare us for what comes next.
Q: Finally, what are your top tips for optimal sleep health right now?
A: Right now, people should be doing what they can to get up at a regular time and get some bright light and physical activity. Then, in the evening, take plenty of time to wind down and prepare your mind and body for sleep. This means disconnecting from media about 30-60 minutes before you want your mind and body to be ready for sleep. Also, if for some reason you cannot sleep, get out of bed—that is the best thing you can do to prevent an insomnia problem from developing over time. This also applies if you wake up during the night. The best thing to do if you can’t fall back to sleep is to get up and do something mellow for a bit, then try again!
There you have it! Try to keep your sleep times consistent, keep a dream diary on your nightstand and most importantly, know that all these dreams are totally normal.
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Photo: Brittany Colette via Unsplash; Kristopher Roller via Unsplash