Having weird dreams lately? The psychology behind your disturbed sleep!

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A couple of weeks ago, I dreamt that my friend Kerri and her husband Ben’s wedding was happening the same day as my sister Dee and her husband David’s. But it was totally fine because we were all going to go to Kerri and Ben’s first, then go to Dee and David’s wedding after. Solid plan. Unfortunately, Ben passed away before his and Kerri’s ceremony. But again, it was totally fine, Kerri went ahead with the ceremony without him. Then the rest of us went to Dee and David’s wedding after and it was a lovely service. Then at the afters, we all ate Ben chopped up and mixed through tagliatelle for dinner. Yum – mmee.

At first I thought very little of this strange, if not completely psychotic, dream episode. Until more nights passed by and I realised that it had only been the first in what was going to become a series of strange (although mostly less psychotic) dream episodes. These nights while I am asleep, I find my thoughts and imagination wander to the weirdest, darkest corners of my mind.

I spoke about it with my sister first and we both decided to put it down to the lockdown. Is there anything odd that happens in our lives these days that we don’t just blame on the lockdown? You feel a bit emotionally unstable – lockdown. You’re a little disillusioned – lockdown. You’re hungrier than usual – lockdown. You can’t bring yourself to exercise – lockdown. You’re crying all the time and you’ve put on half a stone – lockdown!

But then as I went about consuming my regular media I began to understand that I was not the only one who was suffering this trend of strange dreams and disturbed sleep as a symptom of being in lockdown. David McWilliams shared his sleep experiences on his podcast last week and he was having all sorts of crazy dreams. And 5 of The Sunday Independent Life magazine writers did a section on disturbed sleep in this weekends paper as well – they’ve all turned half insomniac as a result of lockdown. It seems there is genuine truth in it causing disturbed sleep. I spoke to applied psychologist, Miriam Cunningham, from Royal Edinburgh Hospital who shed some light on the psychology behind our strange new nocturnal behaviour.

She explained, “Our dreams reflect our thoughts and feelings and worries. Dreams are our brains processing what goes on in our mind throughout the day.”  She described a type of trauma therapy called EMDR, where the therapist helps the client to stimulate rapid eye movements which happen when you dream while simultaneously encouraging the person to talk about the trauma, as the REM you do when dreaming helps you process things. “EDMR therapy is done when someone is having intrusive trauma memories or flashbacks. It helps their brain process an event in the same way as other less traumatic memories, with the aim of stopping them intruding back in.”

I’s all very interesting and Ms. Cunningham says its completely normal that people are having weird dreams right now. It’s our brains trying to comprehend the unusualness of our current social circumstances. Ms. Cunningham offers advice on how to maintain a healthy sleep routine at this difficult time. “During this period of lockdown your sleep routine might re-adjust itself a bit and that’s ok, but the important part is to try to establish somewhat of a routine with it, even if the routine is a bit different to your normal.

“It’s really important to create an association of bed being a place just for sleep. Try not to spend lots of time tossing and turning in bed, even if that means going to bed a lot later than you normally would. You should not go to bed until you are sleepy tired, as it is important to associate bed as a place of rest and contentment, not somewhere you toss and turn or feel stressed out in. Try not to worry about not being able to sleep. Sleep will come. Research shows we sleep more than we realise even if we think we are laying awake.”

Ms. Cunningham recommends, “slow breathing exercises and audio mediations to help if you’re stressed. It’s good to have a pre-bed routine as well. For example, I like to watch something fairly mind numbing on tv, brush my teeth and read my book every night before I go to sleep. Habitual actions help limit anxiety and they aid sleep.”

I still have not figured out exactly which of the days events I was processing when I ate Ben mixed up in tagliatelle for my dinner the other night in my sleep, but I am absolutely certain that it is not something I want to experience again – even if it was just in my dreams. Tonight, I’m going to download some Maeve Binchy on my kindle, light a scented candle and get seriously stuck into some camomile tea. Peaceful sleep – lets be having you!

See HSE information on practising healthy sleep habits below.