This is the reason you are having so many nightmares right now

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Have those dreaded nightmares of you being forced to present your book report in front of the class only to get up there and find out you’re fully nude been replaced with frantic dreams of you and your partner trapped in a full restaurant with no masks in sight?

You are not alone! Pandemic themed nightmares — much like COVID-19 cases — are on the rise.

This new study reveals 26% of 4,275 US citizens reported an increase in vivid dreams or nightmares since the beginning of the pandemic back in March. Psychologists believe the root cause of these nocturnal disturbances are fear and anxiety pertaining to unprecedented times.

Dreams are essentially our collective unconscious so one way to minimize bad dreams could be tackling your subconscious worries in therapy. There are many things you can do to assuage stress during the daytime to promote a more restful sleep come nighttime.

Let’s interpret the study next to glean coping mechanisms to foster sweet dreams for the future.

Results found after crowdsourcing pandemic “dreamers”

Researchers wanted to know the profound effect the collective trauma of enduring a global pandemic would have on our psyche and how it translated to our dreams. They decided to ask folks about the common themes found in these nightmares 6 weeks after lockdown started.

One common theme in nightmares post COVID-19 are scenarios in which people feel trapped. For example, Claire Harmeyer, assistant editor at Hello Giggles recounts the following nightmare fuel. More than once she’s suffered sleep disturbances from the following this year:

  • cockroaches and rats invading her apartment
  • being held hostage by former high school classmates and being injected with a drug that made her unable to speak or escape
  • watching in horror as members of her family die and she is rendered powerless to help

Our subconscious often absorbs the day’s events like a sponge and essentially wrings them out at night while we are sleeping. If your whole day consists of bad news, traumatic events, and feelings of isolation while sheltering in place you’re bound to have bad dreams.

Several people are leaning heavily on poor coping mechanisms, such as abusing alcohol, which can also cause sleep disturbances.

This recent brief goes deeper into the theory of how bad dreams are born.

Dr. Kelly Bulkeley, a psychologist, author, and director of the Sleep and Dream Database adds, “This is definitely a time of heightened dreaming and awareness of dreaming, and mostly negative dreaming, for most people. There are a number of factors that can contribute to adult nightmares, such as medications like antidepressants, pre-bed alcohol consumption, and sleep disorders. Increases in anxiety and fear, too, can lead to unwelcome dreams.”

Researchers also theorize nightmares are more prevalent due to post-traumatic stress disorder. Usually, folks who suffer from PTSD are ones who’ve experienced acute, short term traumas. However, traumatic events stretched over a long period of time can be equally as damaging to our mental and physical wellbeing. The effects are similar to the fallout citizens experience with the extended climb back to normalcy after a country is devastated by a natural disaster.

Luckily there are things you can do in your waking life to make your dormant one better.

Tactics to tackle bad dreams

There are a few ways to minimize the mini horror films playing on an endless loop in your head every night. I wish there was a message that popped up saying “are you still watching?” like on Netflix so I could opt out of a nightmare I’m currently having but until we develop that technology here are some helpful tips:

Go to therapy

This year has been so much to deal with honestly it would behoove the nation to seek treatment. There’s no stigma in asking for help during a particularly trying year and all a therapist will do is help you deal with that panic in a productive way that won’t keep you from enjoying the things you love every day.

Here’s a free tip from a psychologist, Dr. Nofzinger, on reframing your dreams for a positive outcome in this press release.

“While in bed at night, think about the content of your most frequent or memorable nightmares and actively say, ‘I want this dream to end a different way.’ By doing that you now can start to recognize what’s happening during sleep, kind of re-assert some level of control, and actively change the ending to a more favorable ending.”

Write down your dreams

Half the battle of casting down your demons is meeting them directly, no? Dr. Bulkeley recommends keeping a dream journal to help separate reality from dreams.

“The challenge upon awakening is to reflect on the dream rather than having it still consume you, and so writing it down is an easy way to put the dream out there: ‘Ah, look at that, there’s that nightmare. I’m not in it, it’s out there now…’ That, right away, creates a little distance, but a healthy distance, because it’s not denying it.”

This rational thinking model, otherwise known as “cognitive restructuring,” dampens the alarm bells that ring in the fear center of the brain. Once you tell yourself it was “just a dream” and the likelihood of your whole family dying from COVID-19 is unrealistic as long as they are adhering to mitigation techniques, (such as social distancing), you’ll start to feel better.

Taking a few deep breaths after a particularly troubling nightmare can help lower the cortisol surge in the fear center of your brain upon waking. Try playing soothing music too.

Stick to a healthy pre-bed ritual

If you want to sleep better it’s best to limit screen time right before bed. Binging true crime documentaries and pandemic theme dystopian films right before you go to sleep can also add to weird dreams. Avoid drinking coffee too late at night and drink alcohol in moderation for your best sleep possible. Those people who have a steady nighttime routine experience less disordered sleep patterns and disturbances.

Hopefully this study helps and you’ll be counting sheep in no time!