By K W Warburton, The Reluctant Spoonie
I started having vivid dreams and nightmares after developing my chronic illness. After connecting with others who had the same illness as me, I found that I was not alone. Something that interested me during the coronavirus lockdown was that many people reported having nightmares and disturbed sleep during this time.
I had always assumed that the nightmares were a symptom of my illness. Since seeing a large number of ‘normal’ people experiencing the same thing during the lockdown period, I have since changed my mind. Perhaps the stress of living a restricted life had been causing my nightmares all along?
Nightmares and chronic illness
I spoke with several people who have experienced frequent nightmares since developing a chronic illness. Many attribute their chronic illness as the cause of their frequent nightmares as well as stress and trauma.
Here’s what they had to say:
*Contributions edited for length or clarity.
The Psychology of Nightmares
The first step to managing your nightmares is to understand the psychology and stages of sleep. A quick search on Web MD reveals that nightmares can be caused by medications, food and even withdrawal from alcohol or other substances. However, these do not explain the sudden onset of nightmares for those with chronic illness or even those who experienced them during the quarantine.
Dreams occur during the REM (rapid-eye movement) stage of the sleep cycle which is longer if you don’t wake up with an alarm or at the same time every day. This is common for those who are housebound due to chronic illness. High emotions can also influence dreams. For example, if you spend a lot of time worrying during the day this may be a factor in the quality of your sleep at night (Science Focus).
How to manage frequent nightmares
The common methods to alleviate nightmares (meditation, yoga and good sleep hygiene) have not worked for me. A lot of techniques to reduce nightmares focus on processing past traumas or stresses, not current ones that you may be still experiencing.
“For a lot of people at the moment, the stress they’re under is very current stress. And so it may be, I’m afraid, that the nightmares will still happen. It may be that we need to have an endpoint to it [the pandemic] for our dreams to get back to normal.”– Dr Deirdre Barrett
The solution that Dr Barrett suggests (a clear endpoint) is not possible for those of us with long-term illnesses. The leading causes of nightmares are trauma and stress. Maybe it is time that doctors acknowledge the trauma of developing a chronic illness and provide support at the early stages of diagnosis to reduce this. Additionally, the stress of having a fluctuating health condition may also be influencing our dreams.
There is a connection between chronic illness and nightmares that doctors can no longer ignore. The increased frequency in nightmares among people during lockdown shows that living a restricted life can lead to disturbed sleep and vivid dreams.
If you are having frequent nightmares and vivid dreams that are affecting your sleep, talk to your doctor in the first instance to investigate.
Have you experienced frequent nightmares/ vivid dreams since developing your chronic illness?