FOX NEWS - About 94 percent of the U.S. is under “stay-at-home” orders due to the novel coronavirus, with millions having to apply for unemployment and finding themselves in situations that just a month ago seemed unthinkable.
The many unknowns surrounding COVID-19, including when this may be over, is causing stress and anxiety that many are seeing seep into their dreams, prompting the hashtag #PandemicDreams.
To avoid nightmares, experts advise removing potential triggers, which can be difficult given today’s circumstances. But it’s also important to remember that nightmares are normal occurrences.
“Nightmares are normal nocturnal events that everyone has experienced during their life, especially during childhood,” Dr. Jeffrey Durmer, a leader in sleep health care and the chief medical officer of Nox Health, told Fox News. “One reason we think children may have many more parasomnias like nightmares and sleep terrors is that one of the primary functions of sleep in children is neurodevelopment.”
“The incorporation of learned facts and fears, like snakes, spiders and heights, into the memory of developing child is dependent on their daytime experiences and the natural cycles of sleep,” he explained. “Expressing these learned memories is a normal part of brain development and even during childhood it is clear that our experiences, like COVID-19, can induce sleep-related memory systems to activate. Nightmares are one of the potential results of this activity. This is also one of the principal features of PTSD, which underscores the natural function of sleep in the memory formation and learning process.”
The concern, Durmer said, is when the nightmares begin interfering with sleep on a consistent basis, which he considers to be two or more times per week. In these instances, Durmer said it is likely that the trigger or stimulus that’s causing the nightmares has not been discovered and therefore cannot be avoided.
“In terms of the recent COVID-19 pandemic, nightmares related to this should dissipate following the resolution of the pandemic,” Durmer said. “Continued nightmares or parasomnias may indicate a form of PTSD, which your medical or mental health professional should be able to help you with. Also with the anxiety of social distancing and stay-at-home orders, many people have increased their use of substances like alcohol, marijuana or other stress-relieving chemicals – this is another factor that could trigger both REM and non-REM sleep parasomnias, and should be considered when frequent nightmares or sleep terrors are noted.”
It's also important not to stress over the occasional nightmare, as everyone experiences disruptions in their sleep from time to time, Durmer said.
“A poor night sleep is something that your natural sleep cycles are designed to accommodate by increasing ‘sleep pressure’ in your nervous system resulting in enhanced deep non-REM sleep the following night,” he said.
It becomes a concern when the sleep disruption is occurring night after night, which can put you at risk for several health issues such as heart disease, arrhythmias, weight gain, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, stroke and even cancer.
“When sleep disruptions occur night after night, your natural ability to ‘respond’ is diminished and your body and brain immediately suffer the loss of sleep in numerous ways,” he said. “Initially, your mood, memory and other higher cortical functions become impaired, but in addition we now know that sleep-dependent physiological processes like removing toxic metabolites from the brain, managing blood glucose, regulating appetite hormones, resetting insulin receptor sensitivity, controlling blood pressure and immune function begin to fail.”
Talking through your experiences, like sharing them on social media under a specific hashtag, can also help “defuse” the experience and up your chances of getting a restful night's sleep.
“Remember, our ‘new experiences’ activate our emotional and memory systems, which is natural and normal,” he said. “By reducing the emotional impact of new information on our thoughts, we improve the chances of parasomnias from occurring.”
Speaking with a health care physician can also help you find relief, especially one who specializes in sleep medicine. There can be other underlying factors at play, including obstructive sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome or even insomnia.
“Treating the underlying cause of parasomnia and not the symptoms of parasomnia is essential to resolving the situation,” Durmer said. “This is why ‘trying’ over the counter medications or even prescription medications before understanding the cause can be very detrimental. Many people who have recurring sleep-related problems like parasomnias benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy where the underlying fear-evoking issue is explored and new strategies developed to deal with the thoughts and/or behavioral response to [a] specific fear.”