Picture: 123RF/RAW PIXEL
Picture: 123RF/RAW PIXEL

He was running an essential errand. Inside the building, people were jostling, pushing — no-one was 1.5m away, no-one was social distancing. He couldn’t get away, and he couldn’t get out. It was terrifying.

Then he woke up.

The man who shared this nightmare with me isn’t the only one having plague dreams. I have them too, only mine are less literal: I’m being chased by something formless and terrifying, or I’m rushing around the office in a bathrobe several steps behind where I need to be. Whenever I arrive somewhere, I’m already too late.

When I wake, the details fade, but the emotion remains: a great fear that everything is out of control and nothing I do is enough.

You may also have found your dreams a bit unusual lately. And it’s not only nightmares. During a stressful time, even regular dreams can become unusually vivid. My husband keeps dreaming of his favourite fishing river, the place he misses most in this locked-down time.

Researchers have long been befuddled and fascinated by dreams. What neurological purpose do they serve, if any? And how does stress affect our dreams?

One theory is that dreams are a way for our brains to make sense of the day’s events, purge short-term memories and consolidate useful information. High-quality sleep helps us solve problems and make better judgments, and dreams may assist that process by synthesising information and clearing away mental clutter.

Dreaming is a unique state that perhaps allows us to “reprocess upsetting memories in a safer, calmer environment”, writes Matthew Walker, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of California at Berkeley and the director of the Centre for Human Sleep Science. When we wake up, we’re less emotionally reactive, and perhaps some difficult feelings have lost their sting.

Another idea is that dreams somehow help with problem-solving. A study Walker conducted found that people who were wakened while dreaming were more creative puzzle-solvers than those wakened from other sleep cycles, and were more likely to say the solution instantly appeared to them. Anyone who has woken to find a previously hard-to-grasp answer staring them in the face knows what that’s like. It’s one reason we encourage friends facing a tough decision to “sleep on it”.

Dreaming about the precise problem you’re trying to solve may be especially helpful. A study of people who dreamed about solving a maze they’d been working on showed they became 10 times better at it than those who didn’t dream about it.

(There is no guarantee of success, sadly: I began dreaming nightly of solving pre-calculus equations when I was perilously close to failing that class. It did not make me any better at them while awake.)

Perhaps this problem-solving function explains in part why so many of us have anxiety dreams. Swedish neuroscientist Antti Revonsuo thinks stress dreams may serve to keep us alert to potential future dangers; if we dream about being trapped in a crowded space amid a global pandemic, perhaps our brain is essentially giving us a chance to rehearse.

Other research seems to bear this out: A study of students studying for the Sorbonne exam, for example, found that those who had anxiety dreams the night before the test performed significantly better on it — by an average of half a point on a seven-point scale.

But even if anxious dreams may serve a purpose, they’re no fun to have. And if they’re disrupting our sleep, they may make us more anxious: a sleepless night can trigger a 30% rise in anxiety, according to 2019 study. We might think we’re too edgy to sleep, in other words, but it actually it could be the lack of good sleep that’s making us edgy.

There are steps you can take to get more restful sleep — for one, just having a consistent sleep schedule for you and your children (if you have them). Many sleep experts suggest blocking off the last hour of the day to wind down; use this time to listen to calming music or read an escapist novel rather than catch up on the latest nightmarish news.

Both caffeine and alcohol can interfere with sleep, so keep them in check. Even if you’re working from home, try as much as you can to keep work out of the bedroom.

And remember, if your dreams are dark, it’s just the mind’s way of coping.

• Green Carmichael is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion. She was previously managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron’s, and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted the HBR Ideacast. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bloomberg