This Is Why You're Having So Many Nightmares—and What You Can Do to Stop Them
Experts explain how to lessen the frequency and sleep more peacefully.
More than once this past year, Claire Harmeyer has spotted cockroaches and rats invading her apartment, the pests swarming around the kitchen floor. Another night, she was held hostage by her former high school classmates, injected with a drug that made her unable to speak or escape. Other times, she's watched several family members pass away, powerless to help them or do anything at all. After each nightmare, the 23-year-old has woken up exhausted, relieved to be back in reality but aware that she's not out of the woods; since the beginning of this year, Harmeyer has had nightmares several times a week, a "drastic" increase from her pre-pandemic life.
"If I’ve had a particularly stressful week, it seems as if every night’s sleep is filled with nightmares," says Harmeyer, the assistant editor at HelloGiggles. While the content of her dreams has varied, the theme of feeling "trapped" has been constant—and considering the limitations of life in 2020, it doesn't take much to figure out why.
Since the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic began, sleep experts and psychologists have noted an increase in vivid dreams for many people, with causes ranging from changes in our sleep patterns to increased consumption of media before bed. But while not all of these dreams are disturbing, there has been a notable rise in the frequency of nightmares in particular. A recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that 26% of over 4,000 people surveyed reported an increase in nightmares from pre-pandemic life.
"This is definitely a time of heightened dreaming and awareness of dreaming, and mostly negative dreaming, for most people," says Dr. Kelly Bulkeley, a psychologist, author, and director of the Sleep and Dream Database. There are a number of factors that can contribute to adult nightmares, such as medications like anti-depressants, pre-bed alcohol consumption, and sleep disorders. Increases in anxiety and fear, too, can lead to unwelcome dreams.
But for most people, these nightmare occurrences were relatively rare until the pandemic began—and, to put it bluntly, shit hit the fan.
"The general heightened arousal and fears that people might be having during this time of intense societal concerns and pressures could be lightening sleep and also causing us to have more fearful experiences than otherwise we might have," explains Dr. Eric Nofzinger, a sleep researcher and founder/chief medical officer of Ebb Therapeutics.
And it's not just the actual pandemic that's the culprit. "It’s COVID, it’s Black Lives Matter and protests and concerns about that, there are environmental issues...and on top of it all, we have maybe the craziest election ever, with a long lead-up and an ongoing drama," adds Dr. Bulkeley. "So yeah, mix all that together, and you’re pretty sure to get a lot of nightmares."
As scientists have noted, the experience of living through 2020 can be similar to having post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); while the condition is generally focused on acute, short-term traumas rather than long-term events, the similarly negative impact of the pandemic's health and financial effects on many people is undeniable. And since nightmares are a common complaint of PTSD sufferers, it's no surprise that many who are dealing with the pandemic are also experiencing an increase in these dreams. "It’s similar [to] lots of traumatic experiences that either we might go through personally or as a society," such as losses or natural disasters, says Dr. Nofzinger.
For some nightmare sufferers, the pandemic's impact is clear—they'll dream about related themes and events like sickness, contagion, and social distancing failures (i.e. "I forgot to wear my mask in a room full of 500 people!"). For others, like Harmeyer with her "trapped" nightmares, the dreams often are not directly connected to real-life events but are clearly metaphorical. Katie Bromley, a 45-year-old in marketing, says she's had numerous recent nightmares about losing her children that have left her panicked upon waking.
"They've definitely gotten worse over the last few months," she says. "With all the typical adult stresses...plus an added layer of anxiety and crazy caused by the pandemic, maybe this is just what my normal is now."
According to Dr. Bulkeley, the difference in how our fears and worries over the world manifest in our nightmares lies in our personalities. "Not everybody processes their emotional experiences in the same ways," he explains. "So, for some people, those explicit connections are how they’re processing. For other people, the emotions are equally as strong, but that’s not how their dreaming mind and imagination digest things."
While Harmeyer's nightmares, for instance, are typically at least semi-realistic, others' disturbing dreams are primarily based in fantasy. Over the past several months, 41-year-old Michelle Wheeler, a producer, has had a number of nightmares involving everything from volcanic explosions to giant spiders. When she reached out to a dream interpreter, however, he theorized that even her wildest nightmares were symbolic of the stresses she felt about the world, not all of which she'd processed fully in her waking life.
While there could be no definite answer as to the causes of her nightmares, of course, hearing this take still helped Wheeler cope. "That probably doesn’t sound like some great revelation—to be stressed out during a global pandemic—but it confirmed to me that I was not giving space to myself to process the stress I was consciously and subconsciously feeling," she explains. "And it encouraged me to seek additional resources to confront my fears and concerns in a more direct way in order to manage my own stress and anxiety."
Getting valuable mental health support can lessen not only the negative emotions you feel while awake but while sleeping as well. Therapy can be a great option, especially if your anxiety or fear is having a negative impact on your day-to-day life, but there are tactics meant to reduce nightmares that you can try on your own, too. Dr. Nofzinger recommends thinking of the dreams as stories with endings you can control; while in bed at night, he says, 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, he explains, "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."
There's also the technique of "cognitive restructuring," in which a person tries to change their thought process on an anxiety-inducing subject by thinking rationally about the situation. If you often have nightmares about getting COVID-19 or watching loved ones get sick, for instance, Dr. Nofzinger advises reminding yourself that the likelihood of infection is actually fairly low for people abiding by safety measures. "So the rational thinking would be: The real chance that I personally am going to get coronavirus is probably less than what my brain is telling me, what my fear center is telling me," he says.
"The more you’re taking control and trying to minimize exposure during the daytime, then you’re going to feel more in control at nighttime," Dr. Nofzinger explains. "When you’re asleep, it’s going to be less anxiety- or fear-charged and presumably would lead to less nightmare suffering."
Another tactic that might lessen the frequency of your nightmares? Writing them down. "Part of the distress of [a nightmare] comes from the sense that it’s overwhelming," explains Dr. Bulkeley. "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."
Keeping up general good sleep habits, like limiting screen time and avoiding stimulating beverages before bed, can also lead to smoother sleep, and it never hurts to talk about your nightmares with a friend or family member if you can't shake them upon waking. "These are tough times in a million different ways," says Dr. Bulkeley. "Everybody has to find their deepest resources to get through this."