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Vivid dreams have gotten pretty common during the Covid-19 pandemic and there’s a good psychological reason for that.

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Sources:
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[♪ INTRO].

Anyone else been having some super vivid dreams lately? Or a lot more nightmares than usual?

Join the club. Vivid dreams have gotten pretty common during this strange, socially-isolated time we’re all living through, especially unpleasant or stressful ones. And there’s a good psychological reason for that.

Dreams are complicated, but one thing we know is that vivid dreams seem to be tied to light sleep. We’ve talked about that before in our episode on remembering dreams, but the gist of it is this:. Every time you come out of deep sleep and stir awake, your brain emits a hormone called norepinephrine, which helps solidify memories in your brain.

So you remember your dreams more vividly. On the other hand, if you’re sleeping soundly, your norepinephrine levels stay low, meaning your brain is less likely to keep a record of the things you experienced while you were dreaming. Unfortunately, it seems like a lot of people aren’t sleeping so soundly these days, and our dreams are giving us away.

That’s not super-surprising:. Two of the leading causes of disrupted sleep are stress and anxiety. But that’s not the only thing going on.

See, you have most of your dreams during REM sleep, which are cycles of deep sleep where your mind is basically as active as it is during your waking life. You generally have a few cycles of REM sleep every night, but the amount of time you spend in REM sleep can depend on how you’re doing psychologically. In 2019, a study by the University of Surrey found that, in mice, a rise in stress and anxiety is linked to longer and more frequent REM cycles.

The research suggests that this increase in REM helps the mouse brains react to and deal with stress, and the same may be true for humans. So, as the brain is responding to that stress with more REM, it’s also increasing the amount of time it has to make dreams. Similarly, research has found, when you’re sleep-deprived, the sleep you do get is more intense.

For one, your brain is more active when you’re asleep, generating more intense dreams. But on top of that, it will try to make up for lost time by sending you into REM sleep much faster than usual. You’ll also have longer periods of REM as your brain tries to recover.

This is called REM rebound, and during these intense periods of sleep, people tend to have especially vivid dreams. So if you put all that together, if you’re stressed out and sleeping fitfully, you’re probably having more intense sleep when you actually do get some shut-eye, which is giving you the wild dreams. And then you’re remembering the dreams especially well because you’re sleeping lightly and giving your brain a chance to commit those dreams to memory.

Maybe you feel like you’re sleeping fine, though, and you’re still having wild dreams. Well, no matter how well you’re sleeping, the types of dreams people have tend to mirror the challenges they face during the day. That might seem kind of obvious if you’re someone who tends to remember your dreams, and sure enough, the research backs it up.

A 2017 study looked at the connection between people’s waking lives and their dreams and found that, if a subject was feeling frustrated, scared, or unfulfilled throughout their day, those feelings would often show up again in some form in their dreams that night. The severity of those emotions during the day also seemed to be tied to the intensity of their dreams. One theory suggests that when we have unresolved worries or fears about something from our waking lives, our subconscious tries to create similar situations in our dreams as a sort of defense mechanism.

That’s where we get nightmares, or what you might think of as “stress dreams”. You know, the ones where you’re falling, being chased by a scary thing, locked up, or repeatedly failing at something. The plots don’t vary all that much.

And unfortunately, these dreams can be especially memorable, because you often realize you’re having a nightmare and wake up, which gives you that burst of norepinephrine that helps solidify your memories. So if you feel like you’ve been having a lot of bad dreams lately, you’re not alone. And there are ways to try to stave them off.

Like, meditating, practicing yoga, or reading before bed help calm anxiety. If you have recurring stress dreams, you could also try something called Imagery Rehearsal Therapy. Before you go to bed, replay the recurring dream in your head, but change the ending to something more comforting.

Studies have found that this technique can help reduce the frequency of recurring dreams or make them less intense when they do happen. And if you’re just having harmless, wild dreams, well, maybe you can at least enjoy this temporary peek into your subconscious while it lasts. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych!

If you liked this video and you’ve wondered why you’re especially good or bad at remembering your dreams, you can find our episode on that right after this. [♪ OUTRO].