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An Interview with Dr Mark Toh: The Effects of COVID-19 On Dreams

An Interview with Dr Mark Toh: The Effects of COVID-19 On Dreams

 

Amrita Kaur, a journalist from the Straits times interviewed Dr Mark Toh, Consultant Clinical Psychologist about the effects of COVID-19 on dreams. Parts of the following interview was published in the Straits Times on 13 July 2020. 

 

Here’s the interview in full: 

  1. Dr Deirde Barrett, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical’s department of psychiatry, who has studied the dreams of survivors of the Sept 11 attacks, said people tend to have an increase of bizarre, emotional and vivid dreams after crises (such as Covid-19). Can you share your thoughts on why you think this happens?
  2. Some people dream about sanitisers, face masks and toilet paper. Why such particular items? 
  3. What exactly is happening in our subconscious (when we sleep) during periods of stress? How does that manifest in our dreams?
  4. Will such dreams affect the quality of one’s sleep? Why or why not? 


Answers
:
Nearly all trauma survivors experience some type of trouble sleeping such as insomnia. But for anywhere from half to three-quarters of people, it is vivid dreams that make it difficult to sleep soundly. Having flashbacks to traumatic events, also called re-experiencing, is a hallmark symptom of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). For half of PTSD patients, those flashbacks occur at night while sleeping. Some people have nightmares that are exact replays of the trauma that they experienced, and these are called “replicative nightmares.” Others have nightmares that are related to the trauma indirectly or symbolically. Trauma and stress can disrupt your sleep in many ways. It can set off your body’s fight-or-flight response, and ramp up production of neurotransmitters that keep you awake and vigilant when it is time to sleep. 

The items sanitizers, face masks or toilet paper may be dreamt about because they represent perceived solutions to address the threat of being harmed by Covid-19. Our psyche (our human mind or soul where we deliberate consciously and unconsciously –judge, think, feel– in relation to our sense of self and our sense of reality) is highly concerned about safety and security and therefore, when a threat is perceived, we consciously and unconsciously move in search for items or avenues that promote and restore our sense of safety. 

There are several theories about the role of dreams in our sleep. In the event of stress, it suggests that our unconscious is working overtime in search for safety or to be settled with what may be traumatic, distressing or are reasons for anxiety. Stress is a disruption to our equilibrium and is communicated as an emotional and physiological alert. Because our psyche does not like to be unsettled or be disturbed, we tend to work consciously and unconsciously to settle what may be threatening or disturbing towards safety.

Yes. Trauma and stress can disrupt your sleep in many ways. It can set off your body’s fight-or-flight response, and ramp up production of neurotransmitters that keep you awake and vigilant when it is time to sleep.

 

  1. Dr Rose Gibson, a research officer at the Sleep/Wake Research Centre at Massey University in New Zealand, said that while some dreams can be confusing or distressing, dreaming is normal and considered helpful in processing our waking situation. Can you comment on this?

Answer:
Dr. Gibson is correct. Dreams are a normal part of our sleep. Dreams have been described as hallucinations (defined by Oxford as “an experience involving the apparent perception of something not present”) during certain stages of sleep. They are strongest during REM (rapid-eye-movement) sleep, one of the four stages of sleep. But dreams are thought to have other functions as well: 

    • Dreams are sometimes engaged in settling what is unsettling or disturbing as already mentioned,
    • Since the psyche is particularly concerned about safety and security in the daytime, dreams can represent an unconscious search to address the threat in overtime when sleep is intended. One of the areas of the brain that is most active during dreaming is the amygdala. The amygdala is the part of the brain associated with the survival instinct and the fight-or-flight response. Because the logical part of the brain is less in play in contrast to the emotional during dreaming. Nightmares may reflect attempts to address our fears or to prepare to deal with anticipated threats in waking life.
    • Dreaming may reflect our muse as it facilitates our creative tendencies. A person can be awakened by great ideas for a movie or song that has been deliberated on during awake hours. The awake period could also involve psychological defenses at play such as denial or suppression that prevent certain ideas from emerging. In dreaming, these filters are not as active so that suppressed ideas or fears often emerge then.
    • Besides sorting through complicated and unresolved events or anticipated fears, dreams are also suspected in aiding the storage of important memories and getting rid of unimportant memories as a part of our need to process information triggered during the awake period. Learning new information and being able to sleep on it facilitates recall of lessons learned.
       

 

  1. Do you think extra sleep, or lack of sleep, might contribute to vivid dreams related to Covid-19?

Answer:
Dreams can also be affected by certain health conditions that result in sleep deprivation. Sleeping issues that cause a lack of sleep, such as insomnia and narcolepsy, can increase one’s risk of experiencing vivid dreams. Changes to your sleep schedule, such as flying overseas (and going to sleep at a different time) or getting less sleep than usual, can also increase this risk. Those who are sleep-deprived can lead to parts of the brain being much more active so when they finally slip into REM sleep they are likely to have more vivid dreams. They are also more likely to recall their dreams too.

 

  1. It seems that people are having better memory of their dreams now (An ongoing study at the Lyon Neuroscience Research Center in France found that “the coronavirus pandemic has caused a 35 per cent increase in dream recall among participants, with respondents reporting 15 per cent more negative dreams than usual). Why are people having a better memory of their dreams?

Answer:
The brain during sleep is involved in information processing where unnecessary information is eliminated and important short-term memories are moved into our long-term memories, and dreams occur during this process. As such, some people may recall dreams with a difference in their ability to memorize things in general. Also, memory is affected by recall. Memories that are repeated as perhaps a sign of preoccupation or paranoia are more accessible. 

 

  1. Have you noticed any of your patients having problems with sleeping specifically related to Covid-19? For example, if they are worried about the number of community cases the next day and this worry keeps them up at night, they fear for their jobs, etc? 

Answer:
Difficulty sleeping because of Covid-19 concerns is not a common complaint among my patients. This may be suggested by them not feeling threatened by the risk of infection, or that they feel they are coping with this threat, or that they are not in jobs or situations that are being threatened by the pandemic. 

 

  1. Have any of your patients experienced any dreams related to coronavirus and such fears? If so, can you share what some of such dreams are? 

Answer:
None of my patients have reported dreams related to the coronavirus to me. Those who are more likely to be reactive to the coronavirus are probably those who are vulnerable to anxiety such as those who are obsessive-compulsive in nature.

 

  1. According to National Geographic, Italian researchers found that people stuck in lockdown experienced nightmares that bear similarities with someone going through post-traumatic stress disorder. Can you comment on this? 

Answer:
The hallmark symptoms of PTSD are exposure to a traumatic event; re-experiencing the event or intrusive symptoms (flashbacks); avoidance of people, places, or things that serve as a reminder of the trauma; negative mood and thoughts associated with the trauma; and hyper-vigilance. Trauma is experienced when the perceived threat is overwhelming or life-threatening that leaves a victim feeling numb, helpless, disconnected and having difficulty trusting. Since this article in question is reported by researchers from a particular country (Italian), one has to question the scope of the study. Is the study about the traumatic response to the lockdown found across different countries or is it reported specific to a particular region or town in Italy? It is unclear if the reported trauma is in response to the lockdown itself (which is usually activated as a preventive measure to protect against infection), or that the attempt at lockdown is seen as inadequate because the infection rate is already at such high numbers so that the lockdown is perceived as irrelevant or ineffective. As such, there may be the existence of an extraneous variable to explain how those in lockdown could have experienced this action alone as traumatic. At the same time, once the specific group is defined in the study, the results of the study may be explained by a high and pre-existing inter-dependency on this community to cope together as the norm such that restricting communal support disrupts their coping. Subsequently, imposing personal isolation, which is otherwise highly unusual, is therefore experienced as traumatic. The people in this community feel cut off from a regular method of coping which relies on their dependence on each other.

 

  1. Is there anything people can do to try to control what they dream about? If so, what?

Answer:
This depends on whether they view these dreams as distressing. If trauma is indicated or they could represent disturbing experiences in their past or their present, or difficulties at coping at their anticipated future, I would suggest they seek professional help from those familiar with psychodynamic psychotherapy. Dreams are problematic usually only if they are associated with nightmares or sleep disruption. To sleep better and avoid nightmares or sleep that is not restful, the above factors should be reviewed. In particular: (a) ensure that there is adequate sleep scheduled to avoid sleep deprivation, (b) observe their diet since some studies have found that meals high in sugar, spicy foods, or high in starch, too much alcohol, eating excessively and late are associated with higher reports of nightmares, (c) address reasons for anxiety, (d) address unsettled emotional issues such as trauma or abuse, and (e) develop good sleep hygiene practices. Additional steps can include practising mental relaxation before sleep, recording their anxieties somewhere so that they can resume the next day to avoid rumination of what is worrying when sleep is planned or plan for guidance or support to address the worrying on the next day so they can relax at present.

 

  1. There are some people who have difficulty sleeping due to anxiety about the economy, they worry about losing their jobs and the future. How common can this be, and what can people do to relax their mind before they sleep? Now that people are working from home, some are taking naps in the day. Should this be encouraged? Why or why not? Does this make it harder for them to sleep at night? 

Answer:
For those who tend to have difficulty sleeping because of worries about employment or their future, insomnia is a common occurrence. Some even have chronic insomnia. Various studies worldwide have shown the prevalence of insomnia in 10%–30% of the population, some even as high as 50%–60%. It is common in older adults, females, and people with medical and mental ill health. The consequences of insomnia are significant, such as depression, impaired work performance, work-related/motor vehicle accidents, and overall poor quality of life. The reasons behind insomnia are varied. If the problem of sleep is persistent, they should consult psychiatrists or clinical psychologists. If they are anxious, sleep disruption is a common symptom of poor coping. As such, they should see a mental health professional. But if the question is how to promote good sleep for the average person where the sleeping problem is only recent, consider developing good sleep hygiene practices as a start. The following practices are recommended by the Sleep Foundation:

    • Limit daytime naps to 30 minutes
    • Avoid stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine close to bedtime.
    • Exercise to promote good quality sleep.
    • Steer clear of food that can be disruptive right before sleep.
    • Ensure adequate exposure to natural light. 
    • Establish a regular relaxing bedtime routine. 
    • Make sure that the sleep environment is pleasant.

Since more people are working from home, they should limit their nap time. Their difficulty sleeping at night may be indicative that if they had naps during the day, their nap times may have become excessive. The objectives of those working at home should ensure that they maintain a healthy work-life balance. It is important at this time of disruption and uncertainty over a pandemic that we establish goals to maintain good physical and mental health consistent with building our resilience to cope with the unrelenting demands of living effectively in the present and in the future.


Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash

Tips on Parenting Practices that promote Good Mental Health in Children & Youth

Tips on Parenting Practices that promote Good Mental Health in Children & Youth

Author: Dr Mark Toh, Consultant Clinical Psychologist

The 2nd Singapore Mental Health Study (SMHS) which began in 2016 (reported in December 2018) was initiated by the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) in collaboration with the Ministry of Health (MOH) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU). The study focused only on those 18 years old and above. The findings show that 13.9% or 1 in 7 Singaporeans have experienced a mood (major or bipolar depression), anxiety (obsessive compulsive disorder and generalised anxiety disorder) or alcohol use disorder (alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence) in their lifetime. These are the top 3 mental disorders in Singapore among the conditions assessed in the study. The study also reported that more than three-quarters of those with a mental disorder in their lifetime did not seek professional help. In the first SMHS study in 2010, the lifetime prevalence rate of mental disorders in the Singapore population was 12% or 1 in 8 persons. 

 

In a 2012 publication on Depression by the Ministry of Health, it was reported that depression affects between 2.5% to 18% of youth*. Depression among youths in Singapore is considered common. But it is a serious mental health symptom because of it what it reflects of children’s experiences in their environment. In particular, it is a serious reflection of what they may experience in the family or relational environment. If not adequately treated, the depressed child is likely to bring their depression into adulthood. This means that the emotionally wounded or damaged child is likely to carry their wounds forward as adults. This is a likely scenario because it is estimated that an initial episode of depression increases the likelihood of a second episode by 50%. A second major episode of depression increases the likelihood of a 3rd episode of depression by 75%. A third major episode of depression increases the likelihood of a 4th episode by 100%. Not surprisingly, depression has been found to affect brain structures and functioning. It is this recurrent tendency of depression that the suicide risk often increases over time within the same individual with a history of depression.

 

The risk of depression in childhood needs to be a major consideration for all those concerned with the development of children. Depression among children is a serious health problem because it can impair the emotional development of the child. It can seriously affect identity formation which is foundational to how the emerging adolescent learns to relate to themselves, to others and to the world at large. Later as adults, depression can impair psycho-social as well as occupational functioning. Depression is associated with significant morbidity and mortality. Also, depression can be triggered by, or lead to, other mental health conditions such as substance abuse, anxiety, schizophrenia or personality disorders.

 

Signs to watch for in children who may be depressed:

  • Continuous feelings of sadness and hopelessness
  • Irritability or anger
  • Social withdrawal
  • Increased sensitivity to rejection
  • Changes in appetite — either increased or decreased
  • Changes in sleep — sleeplessness or excessive sleep
  • Vocal outbursts or crying
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue and low energy
  • Physical complaints such as stomachaches, headaches that do not respond to treatment
  • Reduced ability to function during events and activities at home or with friends, in school, extracurricular activities, and in other hobbies or interests
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Impaired thinking or concentration
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

 

Not all depressed children display these symptoms. They are more likely to display different symptoms at different times at different settings. When depression is significant, there are often noticeable changes in social activities, loss of interest in school and poor academic performance, or a change in appearance.

 

The young child is most vulnerable to depression due to the quality of relationships with his or her caregivers. This vulnerability increases when the family environment is also accompanied by marital conflict, abuse, violence, illness and/or low socioeconomic status. However, it is in the quality of relationships with caregivers that is crucial because of what it can offer as a buffer or protection from other external events or causes. Therefore, the mental health of children begins with thoughtful parents who genuinely understand and care about their child’s emotional needs and development.

Parenting Practices that promote Good Mental Health in Children:

1. Love your child unconditionally

  • A genuine attitude to decide in the best interests of your child, and not in the parent’s convenience. Children thrive under certain physical and emotional conditions. The long-term view is needed. Parenting must understand the healthy outcome effective parenting can produce. This helps to plan to optimise the emotional development of the child. Loving well in the best interests of the child provides the best head start towards orienting the child to relate to themselves and others in a healthy way. Children’s need to establish a healthy identity, to uncover and stretch their potential, and learn to self-actualise will require parents to stretch their own emotional ‘ceiling.’ This means parents who desire to raise emotionally healthy children have to face their own insecurities so as not to impose them on their own children. Parenting with the best interests of the child will often be at the inconvenience of parents especially if parents do not appreciate the value of nurturing relationships which children thrive on.
  • Loving your child well answers the deep longing for the child to later ask, “Am I worthwhile?” The need for children to recognise their own personal importance, value and worth prepares them to find that their later life will amount to significance. The child at risk of depression commonly struggle with this sense of self regard. Loving the child unconditionally is not based on the social or academic performance that society may hold out for children. Instead, mistakes are accepted as a natural part of their learning. If the parents placed their importance on their children only in reaching their own ambitions, or social or academic accomplishments, these indicate conditional expectations for them to find approval or acceptance. The will view their worth based on what they do instead of who they are. 

 

2. Ensure safe and secure physical and emotional surroundings

  • Secure attachment, which is offering an ongoing, consistent, soothing, accepting presence to the infant is the important beginning in the parent-child relationship that helps the infant to learn to feel safe and secure in the world. This is a foundational need for positive mental health in infants and children and later adulthood. Emotional safety from the secure bond offered by a secure parent helps young children to trust the caregiver and to experience their world as safe and predictable. Through this quality of care, a child is encouraged to first accept themselves as as lovable, as important. It also prepares them next to want to explore their world as they mature physically. This means parents who wish the best for their children have to prepare them to become independent over time.
  • Punitive, harsh or neglectful parents, especially when physical punishment is employed, leads to children questioning their worth or value and increases the risk for later depression. Parents who frequently employ shame, threats, insults or convey other derogatory messages to their children tend to raise a child who view themselves as defective. This is particularly damaging to children. Indeed, the DSM-V lists the sense of hopelessness or worthlessness as a common symptom of depression. Children can be raised to view themselves as defective, and that their life as meaningless.
  • Promoting a safe emotional environment emphasises listening and empathy as skills, and being age-appropriate supportive as an attitude. Being emotionally present and listening well will foster the child’s wish to share their experiences. It builds on the bond already started from providing a secure attachment. It encourages children to view the parent and other people as a safe resource they can count on later if needed. It answers the important question that children ask, “Is it OK to be me?” This also fosters familiarity with emotional intimacy that better prepare children for friendships and significant relationships later. Familiarity with close and supportive relationships also mean that the child is less likely to isolate themselves socially when they face problems later on. It is a wise parent who value interactional activities with their young children early on rather than let them become overly attached to computer games and the internet to amuse themselves. Excessive computer use at the detriment of other activities has been linked to increased loneliness, poor social development and depression. 

 

3. Nurture Self-confidence and High Self-esteem

  • Self-confidence is most easily found when children grow up feeling loved unconditionally.
  • The foundation provided when the child feels loved should be supported by the child’s search for mastery in the world when they are ready to explore. Starting with simple activities, their need for autonomy and mastery over their environment allows them to gain confidence over the tasks they wish to take on. It is important for parents to support this rather than to over-protect them from exploration. Parents who are over-protective of their children and anxious about possible mishaps will find it difficult to foster the autonomy and independence their children need. To build their self-confidence and nurture high self-esteem, parents should be ready to praise their children’s exploratory efforts, be honest with them about their own mistakes, participate in the children’s  activities, encourage them in activities where their interests match their ambitions and allow them to be tested by the tasks they take on.
  • The child’s ability to overcome, which allows them to be exposed to the frustrations and disappointments along the way, is something they have to face as well. Children should be encouraged to enjoy the process in the process of becoming. Learning to face their own frustrations, disappointments and failures will also serve to build self-confidence. Avoiding frustrations or disappointments or learning through determined effort and even failure tends to undermine self-confidence. The opportunities for children to grow through tasks and responsibilities is the beginning from which they can discover and establish their personal power and resilience.
  • Looking for ways to nurture your child’s self-confidence and develop high esteem answers the child need to know “Can I do it?” It requires that parents focus on building strength or resilience through the children’s autonomy –their learning to exercise control over their environment– rather than emphasize ease or comfort through avoidance.

 

4. Promote opportunities to Play with other children and self

  • Play is an integral part of emotional development of children. It is the primary means in which children learn to explore, to discover themselves in their world, and socially to cooperate, take turns and help in friendships. Studies have even suggested that inadequate play time for preschool children lead to more disruptive behaviour. Besides social interactions, play allows for the development of emotional awareness and fosters empathy where children learn about their own emotions as well as the emotions of others. Play also allows children to enjoy the process of becoming one self. This is important in a goal-oriented world that emphasises only winning or success or grades. Indeed they can discover the truth that frustrations and disappointments are often the price we all pay to achieve success. In so doing, play allows children to learn how to emotionally regulate their feelings when they are presented with opportunities to learn to express thoughts, feeling and behaviours in socially appropriate ways.
  • Play is an important part of the child’s need to learn and experiment. Participation in play individually or in a group is an integral part of this learning process. Parents who are open to social interactions offer their children important advantages because they can facilitate their children’s emotional regulation and social learning when they play with their children on a regular basis. Children are more likely to enjoy other people contact when they already enjoy warm relationships with and have fun with their parents. TV or computer use should be monitored so that children are encouraged to engage more in active learning through participation. Computer games designers have made it easier for children, especially children who are neglected or are alone a lot, to be addicted to computer games. Excessive computer use has been found to be linked to depression in children.
  • Play offers the opportunity to address the questions that children ask, “Am I OK and is it good to be me?

 

5. Provide appropriate guidance and discipline

  • While children need to explore, develop new skills and become more independent and responsible, they also need to learn that certain behaviours are not acceptable. They need to be offered guidance and discipline that is fair and consistent from the family unit. They tend to take these social rules to their school and eventually to the workplace. Expectations may be expressed firmly but they need to be kind and realistic. Again, children learn best within encouraging and nurturing relationships. Parents need to be aware of their own maturity and growth and emotional status as they seek to help their children develop self-control, self-discipline or become kind. Their children cannot be expected to growth in those areas which parents have not grown themselves.
  • Explain “why” the child is being disciplined and the consequences of their actions. Criticism should be focused on the behaviour and not the person. Threats, nagging and the use of threats should be avoided. The power that the parent wields should emphasise guidance and instruction in the best interests of the child that allow for children to learn from their mistakes. Those parents who practice excessive domination or coercion should understand that it is not helpful in the long run if children are forced to accept a place of surrender in order for them to survive in the relationship. They need to be encouraged to exercise their own power when appropriate. What has been described as authoritarian parenting, characterised by high demands with poor feedback or nurturance has also been found associated with a higher incidence of depression in children. This is in sharp contrast to authoritative parenting which is characterised by high demands accompanied by responsiveness to the child’s emotional needs. This approach is found to produce children who are responsible, they can regulate themselves, they can make good decisions on their own, and they are respectful to others and to rules.

 

Parenting is primarily a personal and emotional project in raising one’s children. It is foundationally an emotional process to secure the child before a young child eventually matures to believe in themselves. This is crucial before they begin to actively learn to navigate themselves in an increasingly complex world. It is widely understood as a parent’s most important life task since the emotional outcome show up in emotionally healthy or unhealthy individuals even before adulthood beckons. There is an emotional ‘birthing’ process where the Self of a child arrives at a healthy place in their identity formation. Or the opposite will happen. Quality parenting in this ‘birthing’ process create the foundation in which the next generation of children find the basis for their own survival, happiness and fulfilment. As such, parents learning to parent with optimal outcomes will do well to emotionally mature and be healthy themselves so that their children have the best chance to establish themselves in a healthy place in preparation to thrive in life. 

—-

References:

Institute of Mental Health, Latest nationwide study shows 1 in 7 people in Singapore has experienced a mental disorder in their lifetime, 2018. https://www.imh.com.sg/uploadedFiles/Newsroom/News_Releases/SMHS%202016_Media%20Release_FINAL_web%20upload.pdf

The Ministry of Health, Depression: MOH Clinical Practice Guidelines, 2011.

Woo BSC, Chang WC, Fung DSS, Koh JBK, Leong JSF, Kee CHY, et al. Development and validation of a depression scale for Asian adolescents. J Adolesc. 2004 Dec; 27(6):677-89.

Woo BSC, Ng TP, Fung DSS, Chan YH, Lee YP, Koh JBK, et al. Emotional and behavioral problems in Singaporean children based on parent, teacher and child reports. Singapore Med J. 2007 Dec; 48(12):1100-6.