Every night we lay our heads down and drift away into a state of unconsciousness, our muscles entirely paralysed with the exception of eyes, and yet, when we wake we often report experiences of the vivid and bizarre journeys we undertake in our dreams. Since countries have begun to go into lockdown following the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a reported increase in the quality and quantity of dreams experienced. How is it that we can seem so still and rested to the outside world, and yet feel as though we are leaping through different worlds, interacting with our environment in often nonsensical and abstract ways that feel real at the time?
To understand dreams more, it’s important to know when they occur. Sleep can be split into 4 stages, categorised by brain wave patterns, or electrophysiological changes in brain activity, and other bodily changes. Stage 1 is the lightest. Here, you begin to feel drowsy, your muscles relax, and your eyes slowly begin to move, although you can easily be aroused and awoken. Some people may experience ‘hypnic jerks’, otherwise known as abrupt muscle spasms, during this time. Your brainwaves begin to slow in comparison to wakefulness. Roughly 10 minutes later, your body enters the second stage of sleep, which involves your brain waves continuing to slow, although spontaneous irregularities in the form of rapid electrical activity bursts will appear. It is at this stage that sleep begins, although if woken you may not be aware that you had been sleeping. Roughly 15 minutes later, you will begin to enter stage 3. Here it is difficult to wake, and experiences such as sleepwalking and night terrors will most commonly occur during this stage.
It is at the 4th stage, known as REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, where dreams occur. Here, your brain’s electrophysiological patterns show a striking resemblance to wakeful activity, with the exception of your muscles being paralysed. During the night, your body will move through the 4 stages of sleep in a cyclical motion, with each cycle lasting roughly 90 minutes. Therefore, an individual who receives 8 hours of sleep will tend to go through REM sleep 4-5 times.
Work and Dreaming: How stress and change effects sleep
So, why are we seeing more reports of vivid dreams since lockdown? The exact reasons and mechanisms behind how and why we dream are currently unknown. However, research has suggested that the brain uses this time as a tool for processing emotional experiences. It has been suggested that the brain’s neurochemical composition while sleeping allows for an emotionally soothing experience in which negative events can be replayed without feeling the associated stress that usually follows. The Covid-19 pandemic is undoubtedly a stressful and uncertain period of time, with many people fearing for the health of themselves and their loved ones, alongside further stresses such as job security and housing. The vivid dreams that have been recently reported have been postulated as a mechanism for coping with the amplified stress that many individuals have been suddenly exposed to.
Work practices have also changed, as many workers find that they either cannot do their job or have begun to work remotely. The move to working at home, or not at all, has offered many the opportunity to sleep in longer, due to the absence of commute times and later start times. Therefore, the amount of REM sleep cycles that people can go through increases, leading to the potential for more dream experiences. Many people are also given more of an opportunity to reflect in the morning, due to a slowing of life pace. Often, you may find that you awake and immediately start thinking of your day in anticipation, planning your route and bringing your attention to the present. However, with more time in the morning and less planned for the day ahead, it becomes easier to focus your attention on the night before, and the dreams you may have experienced.
An increase in vivid dreams may last outside of lockdown as we navigate our anxiety and concerns for the future. While we cannot necessarily control our dreams, we can try to control our sleep cycles to ensure we get the recommended amount of sleep to feel rested and well for the following day, helping to ease anxiety and build routine into your day. Find out more about how to manage your sleep during lockdown with our guide.
Article Author: Aleks Saunders