Sleep is sometimes the only reprieve we get when times are tough in our waking lives. But if you’ve been riddled with more strange or bad dreams lately, you’d be relieved to know that you’re not alone – and the culprit is ever so present, and from our waking lives. It turns out that concerns over the coronavirus pandemic have found their way into people’s dreams, a development that psychologists say is common around traumatic events.
Covid-19 Could Be A Conscious Or Subconscious Stressor In Your Life
Dr Lim Li Ling, a neurologist at the Singapore Neurology and Sleep Centre in Gleneagles Medical Centre, said dreams may reflect the conscious or subconscious stressors, and fears and issues people experience in their waking hours.
“These underlying fears may surface during sleep as part of their dreams or nightmares. People who experience traumatic or catastrophic events such as Covid-19 may develop psychological symptoms such as fear, anxiety and depression.
“As a result, distressing or vivid dreams may be a manifestation of these psychological disturbances,” said Dr Lim, adding that she has seen older patients who have generalised anxiety and poor sleep due to fears of the pandemic and the frustration of having to stay at home.
This translation of a traumatic experience into dreams was noted in May by Dr Deirdre Barrett, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School’s department of psychiatry.
While the content and meaning of dreams are not well understood, Dr Lim said during periods of stress, there may be symptoms such as fear, anxiety, depression or exhaustion which lead to a hyper-arousal state mentally. This, in turn, prevents deep and restful sleep, causing one to wake up feeling exhausted.
How Your Limbic System Affects Your Dreams
Dr Kenny Pang, an ear, nose and throat specialist at Asia Sleep Centre, said it is believed that during a stressful period in a person’s life, the emotional centre of the brain, called the limbic system, is stimulated and very active.
“The limbic system retains some memory of the event. This same area of the brain is also very much involved in the dreaming processes at night. Hence, some scientists believe that after a very stressful period of one’s life, one might have dreams of the events that had occurred previously,” said Dr Pang, who is the founding member of the International Sleep Surgical Society, as well as a member of the World Sleep Society and the Singapore Sleep Society.
The myth of “the more I dream, the more tired I am” is not true, he added.
“In general, dream sleep is good for the brain. It is a period of rejuvenation and memory rebuilding. The more we dream, the more refreshed we are in the morning.”
Practising Good Sleep Hygiene To Cope With Sleep Disorders
However, disturbing dreams can cause sleep fragmentation, which may lead to poor sleep quality, said Dr Pang.
Meanwhile, Dr Mark Toh, consultant clinical psychologist at Promises Healthcare, says insomnia is a common occurrence for those who have difficulty sleeping because of worries about employment or their future.
To cope with this, he advises people to practise good sleep hygiene such as limiting daytime naps to 30 minutes, avoiding stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine before bedtime, and doing regular exercises to promote good-quality sleep.
“It is important at this time of disruption and uncertainty during a pandemic that we establish goals to maintain good physical and mental health, consistent with building our resilience to cope with the unrelenting demands of living effectively in the present and in the future,” said Dr Toh.