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Experts say a consistent routine before bedtime, as well as thinking about positive endings to potential bad dreams, can help you sleep better during stressful times. TAKE A PIX MEDIA/Stocksy
  • Researchers report that more than half of all bad dreams recorded during a recent study involved the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Experts recommend ways to reduce nightmares including not dwelling on the bad dream and thinking of happy endings to potential dreams before going to sleep.
  • They also recommend reducing stress during daylight hours.

COVID-19 has literally become a nightmare for some people.

A new study published today in the journal Frontiers in Psychology notes that more than half of all distressing dreams reported these days involve the novel coronavirus.

AI-assisted technology analyzed dream data from three groups. One included more than 1,000 people, another 4,000 people during the sixth week of lockdown in Finland, and another 800 responses from contributors.

More than 55 percent of participants reported increased levels of stress, which were closely linked to patterns such as fitful sleep and bad dreams.

In addition, the most stressed participants also had the most pandemic-specific dreams.

Dream data was categorized into clusters or themes based on frequently appearing word associations.

Some recurring pandemic-specific themes included failures in social distancing, coronavirus contagion, and dystopia or apocalypse.

Out of 33 total clusters, 20 were considered bad dreams.

Dr. Anu-Katriina Pesonen, lead author of the study and head of the Sleep & Mind Research Group at the University of Helsinki, said in a press release that their findings allow for speculation of a shared “mindscape” or imagery in dreams across individuals.

Dr. Shalini Paruthi is a member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) and is board certified in sleep medicine and internal medicine.

She told Healthline the term “nightmare” has a subjective component.

“What is a nightmare to one person may just be a bad dream to another,” Paruthi said.

However, vivid and real dream sequences have a tendency to become increasingly disturbing as they unfold in a nightmare, she added.

“Nightmare content most often focuses on imminent or physical danger to the individual, but may also involve other distressing themes,” Paruthi said.

These themes are influenced by the visual images we see during the day, especially near bedtime, said Jennifer Martin, PhD, a member on the board of directors for the AASM and a professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“Dreams are one of the ways our mind processes emotions, especially intense emotions, so it’s natural to have nightmares when we are under stress,” Martin told Healthline. “For most people, the dreams stop when the stress goes away.”

Since collective COVID-19 anxieties and fears aren’t likely to go away any time soon, mental health experts recommend picking up a few coping skills for better sleep during stressful times.

Experts agree bad dreams are caused by stress and anxiety and offer several at-home approaches:

Make getting quality sleep a priority

Martin and Paruthi both mention that when sleep is fragmented, people are more likely to remember their dreams.

“Since nightmares have a bigger impact when sleep is fragmented, getting good sleep is more important than ever during the COVID pandemic,” Martin said.

Don’t dwell on your nightmares

“If you wake up during an intense dream or nightmare, don’t dwell on it,” said Martin. “Remember, these dreams are a normal part of emotional processing during stressful times.”

Martin recommends distracting yourself after waking from a bad dream with a crossword puzzle, a book, or just some quiet time in another room.

“Go back to bed when you feel calm,” she said.

Practice different dream endings

Paruthi said for people who have recurring bad dreams or nightmares, she recommends a technique called imagery rehearsal.

“This involves thinking about the recurrent bad dream and coming up with alternate endings,” she explained. “The person will want to ‘rehearse’ this in their minds for about 5 to 10 minutes while laying bed, nightly, for about 28 days or so.”

“The endings don’t have to be the best, greatest endings, but reasonably good endings,” she said.

For example, consider the nightmare where a person is always being chased by someone in a dream.

Paruthi said they might come up with endings as simple as walking into a store with a security guard that deters the chaser. Or perhaps hiding behind a tree, with the chaser running by. Or maybe finding a magic wand in their pocket and creating a portal that transports their chaser to the middle of a forest.

Experts recommend that people also focus on stress reduction.

“Figure out what is causing the stress and try to resolve it or work through it,” said Paruthi. “Creating a ‘worry journal’ works for some, and I recommend they set a time to write about or think about their worries before or after dinner so it is a time that is far enough away from and distinct from bedtime.”

Paruthi also said it’s important to have a 15 to 30 minute bedtime routine and to think about good things to dream.

“If the last images in your mind’s eye are scary COVID-19-related ones, then that is what you will dream about,” she said. “Look at photos from your last vacation, watch silly videos on YouTube, or play a board game.”

Finally, Paruthi suggests trying meditation or yoga apps during the day or at bedtime.

Research has shown that long-term yoga practice improves sleep quality, depth, and duration, said Dr. Sat Bir Singh Khalsa of Harvard Medical School in Massachusetts and the director of research at Yoga Alliance.

“To the extent that nightmares might be a reflection of stressors working themselves out through the sleep process, yoga could possibly help someone suffering from nightmares,” Khalsa told Healthline.

“Consistent nightmares have been a major symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, and there is a growing body of evidence that yoga practice has efficacy for improving PTSD,” Khalsa added.

The pandemic has marked a distinct before-and-after time in most people’s lives.

While experts allude to a collective trauma or shared traumatic experience taking place, these dream clusters are our first glimpse into what this really looks like.

But they say there’s a fine line between bad dreams and repeat nightmares associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“Nightmares beginning within 3 months of a trauma are present in up to 80 percent of patients with PTSD,” Paruthi said.

Examples of pandemic-related traumas can refer to experiencing lockdown, a COVID-19 diagnosis, associated job loss, and working the front lines as an essential worker.

Paruthi said that although approximately 50 percent of PTSD cases are resolved within 3 months, post-traumatic nightmares may persist throughout life.

What’s more, for people with PTSD and other mental health issues such as depression, medications may also induce nightmares.

It’s important to talk to your doctor if you’re concerned.

If nightmares are causing you distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning, experts say you should seek help from a board certified sleep physician.

Such impairments include mood disturbance, cognitive impairment, and sleep resistance due to anxiety about having nightmares.