How can I stop the nightmares I’ve been having during lockdown?

If you’ve been having more nightmares since lockdown started – or just more vivid, unusual dreams – you’re certainly not alone.

Psychologists say it’s ‘completely natural’ for people to be having nightmares at the moment as triggers include stress, anxiety, depression and feeling or being unsettled.

The good news is there are practical measures we can take to make us more likely to get a peaceful night’s sleep.

Why have I been having more nightmares lately?

Psychologist and family therapist Şirin Atçeken, who is currently helping people with lockdown dreams, says, ‘Nightmares and more vivid dreams in lockdown can be caused by various factors and can represent change, which we are all going through. What we dream can manifest as ourselves and our current state of mind.

‘It is completely natural for people to be having nightmares during lockdown, as triggers include stress, anxiety, depression and feeling or being unsettled.

‘Major changes in life including a death of a loved one, a job loss, divorce, or extra emotional stresses of everyday life can all lead to nightmares, but in normal cases, they are irregular.

‘However, many of us are feeling all of these emotions and experiences at once, and that’s intense and a lot for us to process. When we are unable to process, or understand what is happening around us, or in our lives in a healthy way, they manifest into our subconscious and can lead to vivid dreams and nightmares on a nightly basis.’

There has been much to affect people’s mental health over the last year. It’s been 12 months since the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a global pandemic and the UK first went into lockdown.

At the end of May 2020, 63% of adults were feeling worried about the future, 56% felt stressed or anxious, and 49% were bored, according to the Office for National Statistics.

To date, in the UK, there have been well over 4.25million cases of coronavirus and more than 125,000 people with the disease have lost their lives.

The most recent unemployment rate (for October to December 2020) was 5.1% – its highest level for five years. This means 1.74 million people aged 16 or over in the UK were unemployed.

Without the government’s furlough scheme, which has enabled many businesses to keep their staff on furlough instead of making them redundant, this figure would be even higher. The scheme has protected more than 11million jobs since the pandemic began and in January, 4.7million workers were on furlough. However, even being on furlough has caused financial difficulties for many people, as it only pays up to 80% of an employee’s salary.

We’ve also had restrictions imposed on our freedoms including our ability to travel and to see our friends and family.

Even though vaccinations are well under way and we now have a ‘roadmap’ setting out the planned dates for the easing of lockdown restrictions, many people are still experiencing stress or anxiety – or will do so soon.

Rethink Mental Illness recently did a survey about the easing of lockdown and its effect on mental health. They found that people are anxious about going to places outside the home, confused by the ever-changing rules about what’s allowed, afraid that they or their family will get coronavirus, and affected by returning to their workplace after working from home as well as the uncertainty of what will happen in the future.

Many people have found that the quantity and quality of their sleep has been affected by all of this. Google says searches about strange dreams and insomnia are at an all-time high, and there was a spike when the pandemic started.

Personally, I found it hard to get to sleep when I started taking antidepressants last year, and each time the dosage was increased. Now my body is used to them, I don’t have any trouble falling asleep, but in movie terms, my dreams have (generally speaking) gone from being dramas to thrillers, action movies or occasionally horrors.

I haven’t seen friends, family or colleagues very much over the last few months so it’s no surprise that my dreams often tend to feature celebrities I might have recently watched or heard, rather than people I know in real life.

As I’m a writer, I’ve been enjoying some of my weird dreams – they’ve been inspiring. Usually I forget my dreams very soon after waking up, but lately I’ve been able to recall them for quite a long time, certainly long enough to write them down if I wish. This is a commonly reported change, which could be explained by changes to our sleeping patterns in lockdown. There have only been one or two occasions when I’ve had a dream so disturbing I haven’t wanted to fall asleep again in case the dream picked up where it left off.

But I know that for many people, especially those who have an alarm clock, job or responsibilities that dictate when they get up, the changes to their sleep and dreams are a significant issue.

Şirin Atçeken says, ‘From my experience, females are more likely to have, or report, and be affected by nightmares and sleep deficiency. The most common lockdown nightmares seem to be people being chased by something, or drowning, unable to breathe, searching for something lost, a loved one or being late. All of which, I am sure, we can relate to in real life.’

She says night terrors are also becoming more common and more poignant. ‘Night terrors are different to nightmares and can also be linked to sleep paralysis. Sufferers are jerked awake, terrified, screaming and sometimes unable to breathe. Night or sleep terrors are caused by past and ongoing trauma.

‘The pandemic has caused multiple traumas for many, so it isn’t a surprise that more people are suffering from night terrors. However, what is worrying is that mostly, even when recurring, they come in various patterns but most sufferers are reporting nightly experiences that are more intense and more debilitating.’

How can I improve my sleep?

According to Atçeken, there are many ways to improve sleep habits and patterns, and prevent regular nightmares. She says: ‘Exercise, especially yoga, alongside meditation can help ground us and allow our mind to rest. When we are in states of trauma – and the pandemic is a traumatic experience – our mind goes into overdrive. We overthink, distract ourselves, and form bad eating and lifestyle habits, all of which affect our sleep. Allowing us time to relax, unwind and process is vital in achieving good synergy.

‘Keeping our bodies healthy, in order to keep our minds healthy, can help us sleep better and reduce nightmares. Regular exercise, walks and meditation all give us time to switch off, and produce endorphins, boosting positivity, making us happier and more content.’

Atçeken also recommends writing in a journal before bed. She says, ‘Journalling is a good thing to do as it allows us to clear our head of our thoughts and write them down, storing them away. There is a lot going on in our heads that we don’t consciously recognise, and writing things down allows us to tap into our subconscious and come to realisations that we usually carry to bed with us, which reflect in our dreams.

‘Meditation and stretching is also important, not just for our minds. We store a lot of our emotions and stresses in our bodies, which cause tension, which if unreleased can make us uncomfortable at night-time and our bodies become distressed, which again, reflects in our dreams. If we are tense, we are more likely to have tense nightmares than if we went to bed feeling relaxed and loose.

‘Stretching is also a great way to keep active if you are unable to, or don’t want to, work out. Another reason we are having vivid dreams is because we are not as active as we are used to being, so our minds remain active at night-time to make up for this. Making sure we are keeping active, or keeping our body healthy, is vital for a good night’s sleep.’

She says eating patterns are just as important as sleeping patterns. ‘Good nutrition is more important in achieving good sleep than people realise,’ she says. ‘I’m not a nutritionist but I would recommend avoiding eating late, and eating heavy carbs before bed, and try to eat foods that are good for brain and gut health. Avoid alcohol and caffeine, especially if you’re feeling low or tired, and stop drinking water around 7pm as this will stop you needing to go to the bathroom during the night. Interrupted sleep doesn’t do anyone any favours.

‘I also recommend limiting screen time and don’t watch TV an hour before your bedtime, or read anything that might stimulate you. Yoga and meditation, or even a good stretch before bed, will help both your mind and body.

‘Night terrors and nightmares can be managed by routine and regular exercise, and resting your mind. Lockdown has thrown our entire routine off, but sticking to one will manage our mental and general health, and can deeply benefit our sleeping habits.’

But what if you follow all this advice and still have nightmares? ‘If nightmares continue or get worse, and start to affect your mental health and sleep, seek medical or mental health support,’ Atçeken says. ‘There may be something deeper going on you need to address that lockdown is bringing to the surface.’