If you’re in one of the countries currently experiencing life under lockdown, or just generally feeling stressed about the ongoing pandemic, you might have noticed your dreams have gotten a little strange lately. A myriad of factors can impact your sleep and with a smorgasbord of triggers such as stress, loss of routine, and alcohol to choose from in a pandemic, it’s not surprising that many are finding the nature of their sleep has changed.
“Stress can make it harder to get enough good quality sleep, and not getting enough good quality sleep in makes you experience stress more intensely,” said Roxanne J Prichard, Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of St Thomas, Minnesota and scientific director for the Center for College Sleep, to IFLScience. “It’s actually an evolutionary adaptation – you wouldn’t want to be completely out of it snoozing for 10 hours if you were in a war zone or area with a large number of nocturnal predators.”
While interrupted sleep might keep you safe in a war zone, it’s of little use against an invisible-to-the-naked-eye pathogen sweeping the globe.
To understand why stress can impact the frequency and vividness of our dreams, we first need to do a quick recap on sleep cycles. Each night when we sleep properly, we move through four stages: 1, 2, 3, and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Generally speaking, one cycle takes 90 to 110 minutes before starting again at 1. The first few cycles have a shorter REM stage, but these get longer with each repeating cycle. This is why you might feel as though you dream more when you sleep in.
Stress can make it harder to fall asleep to begin with as our brains fizz with doom and gloom headlines. But according to Professor Prichard, it can also increase nightmare frequency and how often we wake in the night. These two symptoms are an unfortunate combination as when we wake up repeatedly after dreaming, we can remember more of our dreams and they have a greater capacity to impact our mental state the following day.
“On nights when you toggle back and forth between REM and Wake rather than REM and NREM (non-REM), you will remember your dreams more and describe the sleep as much more restless. Because dream content is often imbued with negative emotions, this can linger the next day and impact mood. Also, lower quality sleep increases the likelihood of being in a negative state.”
It’s unsurprising then that when our dreams are growing more vivid and reflecting our biggest waking worries, many of us find it hard to cope, and, for some, alcohol is a pleasurable way to relax. Despite its reputation as a nightcap, it seems alcohol use can further disrupt our sleep. In the above video, Matthew Walker, author of Why We Sleep, explains why even though alcohol can appear to make us sleep easier, it doesn’t make us sleep better. But in these testing times, is quitting booze altogether really the answer?
“I do drink,” said Professor Prichard. “But I make sure it’s a happy hour drink and not a nightcap.” Phew.
Sleep is extremely important in maintaining good physical and mental health, as when we sleep our brain takes time to repair itself while also building new neural cells and restructuring neural pathways, improving our overall cognitive function. Without it, mental health issues such as anxiety and depression can often become exaggerated. In a time when the phrase “these difficult times” appears in almost every article, prioritizing sleep when possible will give ourselves the best chance of staying positive. And it's not just our brains that benefit.
“When we are chronically sleep deprived, our bodies cut corners to keep us running on fumes. Unfortunately for long-term survival, the immune system is one of those cut corners. People who are perpetually short sleepers are more than three times as likely to catch common colds/respiratory viruses.”
Like diet and exercise, sleep is an important staple of our daily lives and yet one that many of us pass up in favor of other things. Next time you find yourself up with Netflix in the early hours, maybe ask yourself: "Can that episode wait until tomorrow?"