The introduction of the nationwide quarantine back in March drastically changed our everyday lives. Previously free to drift as we pleased, we suddenly found ourselves in voluntary confinement.
For many, the lockdown changed the very foundation our lives. We spent every day either in solitude or in close proximity to the same loved ones, whilst working from home, or not working at all, became a defining lifestyle change.
Naturally, with less to divert the mind, the lockdown has seen a boom in ‘quarandreams’, dreams characterised as being very different topically from what we are used to and much more vividly remembered.
What is sleep?
We spend about 1/3 of our lives sleeping and there’s a good reason for this - getting quality sleep is essential to our survival.
Sleep affects almost every type of tissue and system in the body. It revitalises the body and if we don’t get enough of it our bodily functions begin to break down.
For example, sleep is associated with removing toxins from the brain that build up when we are awake. This is important for maintaining healthy communication between nerve cells.
Inadequate sleep prevents this natural regeneration which is detrimental for brain functions such as learning, creating new memories, concentrating, remembering things and responding quickly.
Research shows that a chronic lack of sleep, or getting poor quality sleep, increases the risk of disorders such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression and obesity.
What are the various sleep stages?
There are two basic types of sleep, the first is non-REM sleep (in which there are 3 stages), followed by Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep.
Each night, we cycle through the sleep stages several times. Each is linked with specific levels of activity with respect to the body and the brain.
Stage 1: This reflects the initial drift from being awake to light sleep. This stage lasts for several minutes. The body is wind-down mode, reflected by a slowing heartbeat and lighter breathing, and characterised by features such as slower eye movements, muscle relaxation and reduced brain activity.
Stage 2: This is a period of deeper sleep. The wind down of the body accelerates e.g. the heartbeat and breathing rate slow further.
Stage 3: This is a state of deep and restorative sleep where body relaxation is at its maximum e.g. heartbeat and breathing are at their lowest levels. The muscles are relaxed, the supply of blood to the muscles increases, and the body repairs and grows tissue. This is the most important stage of sleep for feeling awake and fresh in the morning.
Stage 4 - REM: This state occurs about 90 minutes after falling asleep. During REM sleep, our brain is almost as active as when we are awake and this is when most of our dreams take place.
REM sleep is thought to play a leading role in learning, memory and mood. During this stage, the arm and leg muscles become temporarily paralysed which prevents us from living out our dreams.
Why am I having vivid dreams during lockdown?
We spend about 2 hours each night dreaming which mostly takes place during the REM stage. The dreams that occur at the end of REM stage are those more likely to be remembered.
Usually we dream about 5-6 times a night and only 5% of dreams are remembered. Interestingly, some people can dream in colour, while others only recall dreams in black and white.
Whilst the exact purpose of dreaming is not yet known, it’s thought that dreaming helps us to process our emotions. Dreaming subconsciously consolidates and processes information we have gathered during the day, helping to serve as a form of psychotherapy.
Indeed, if you think about it, our dreams tend to be full of emotional and vivid experiences that contain themes, concerns, dream figures, and objects that correspond closely to waking life.
Neuroscientists believe that we are more likely to remember dreams if we have had heightened emotional or vivid experiences, as these instances are at the forefront of our mind and are being analysed and processed by the brain.
Clearly, the coronavirus pandemic has had a significant emotional and mental toll, and many of us have had elevated anxiety and stress levels. Researchers believe this is behind the surge in people reporting increasingly vivid dreams.
In addition, researchers state we are more likely to remember our dreams if our sleep is disturbed and we wake up spontaneously. Again, this is more likely to be the case if we are anxious and worrying.
Neuroscientists advise that vivid dreams are a temporary phenomenon, and that our sleeping and dreaming patterns should quickly revert to what we are used to once normal times resume and we are back in our familiar routine.
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