‘Tearing up the receipts for the previous day’s stresses’: How nightmares have helped us emotionally navigate COVID

Credit: Goñi Montes/Scientific American
Credit: Goñi Montes/Scientific American

For people on the frontline [of the COVID pandemic,] dreams became nightmares. Of 114 doctors and 414 nurses working in the Chinese city of Wuhan, who all took part in one study published in January 2021, more than a quarter reported having frequent nightmares.

Reports of nightmares among citizens also rose during national lockdowns, with young people, women and people suffering with anxiety or depression the highest risk. But for people who research trauma, the increase in nightmares was no surprise.

When our brains are in the REM stage of sleep, both the hippocampus and amygdala are highly active. The former is the part of our brain that orders and stores memories, the latter is the part that helps us to process emotions.


This has led researchers to suggest that vivid, emotional and memorable dreams during the REM stage are the manifestations of our brains storing memories… After a bad dream, the area of the brain that prepares us for being afraid is more effective, as though the dream trained us for this situation

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So next time you have a bad night’s sleep, think of it as your brain’s way of regulating your emotions by tearing up the receipts for the previous day’s stresses.

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