When war invades our sleep NIghtmares, stress and insomnia are some possible consequences of non-stop worry about about the gulf

January 22, 1991|By Sujata Banerjee | Sujata Banerjee,Evening Sun

DREAMS OF THE GULF crisis probably began last October, when Saddam Hussein reported that the prophet Mohammed came to him while sleeping to warn that Iraq's rockets were deployed in the wrong direction. Was the dream real or propaganda, the world wondered.

Saddam's dream didn't inspire him to withdraw from Kuwait. And so, with bombs filling news broadcasts, the dreams people talk about now are their own nightmares.

"Dreams are the demons we will not allow in the door during the day lest we are not able to function," says Mark Komrad, a psychiatrist on faculty at Sheppard Pratt and Johns Hopkins hospitals. "Dreams are often a place in which we experience things we are in denial about during the day, especially things that are painful to us."

"I woke up swinging, fighting, in a cold sweat," says Tony Sartori, owner of two hair salons, about the nightmare he experienced Jan. 15, just after the United Nations deadline for Saddam's withdrawal from Kuwait. "I thought it was back when I was 18 or 19, and it was Vietnam all over again . . . at first, I was fearful, and then I got angry and started fighting back.

"I haven't had a good eight hours sleep since President Bush said there was no compromise," says Sartori, who says he has been watching the news late and averages four hours sleep each night. The result for him has meant migraine headaches, an upset stomach, stress.

"Feeling sad, horrified, anxious and worried are very natural feelings now," says Komrad. "In America, we have built social customs that often take us away from negative feelings. We have a variety of ways of numbing ourselves, through substance abuse, sexual behavior, TV itself. Television has always had a numbing effect and here we have a paradox; we are forced to turn to the thing that numbs us and it provokes us. Now our TVs are being unkind to us -- it is definitely one of the ironies of war."

"The great interest people have in the gulf is really understandable and reasonable," agrees David Neubauer, a psychiatrist at the Johns Hopkins Sleep Center at Francis Scott Key Medical Center. "It is somewhat analogous to going to a party and eating more than you might usually. You just have to realize there are consequences to it. If you want to stay up late, you just have to be prepared for the next day." Symptoms of sleep deprivation and war worry include sleepiness, fatigue, headaches and gastro-intestinal distress. Neubauer says that approximately 15 percent of the general population has trouble getting to sleep. He cannot speculate on how many more people cannot sleep well since the war began, but says those with family members or a special interest in the gulf may be experiencing a rise in insomnia.

Retailer Idy Harris gets between five and six hours of sleep a night, because she stays up until 2 a.m. most nights watching TV news.

"I usually dream all the time -- I can tell you at least five dreams I had every morning -- but I haven't dreamed at all [since Jan. 15]," says Harris. "This is a radical change for me, that I'm not dreaming at all."

Most people spend approximately 25 percent of the night in Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, Neubauer says. "Circumstances can alter the degree to which people remember their dreams. If someone is excessively sleepy because of sleep deprivation, he or she won't remember dreams."

"The war is exciting . . . it's very, very emotional, and the expression of these emotions can promote nightmares," says Neubauer. Also, "Dreams interpret the thought content of the day, so people can incorporate violent and upsetting material in their dreams."

"Dreams can be a steam valve to work through and ventilate things that happen in the day. Secondly, they are a way of descending into things that are in the unconscious, and third, they may be wish fulfillments," says Komrad.

Bob Hieronimus, the syndicated radio host, believes his war dream may be an ominous predictor of things to come.

"The thing that has dominated my dreams is literally what we are trying to do about protecting ourselves," says Hieronimus. "Just as I am about to fall into sleep -- that's when it pounces on me. I see these images . . . I'm always carrying jugs of water and tapping the side to see if they are glass or plastic."

In Hieronimus' dream, he is trying to bring plastic bottles of water -- which are safer than glass -- to use as provisions while hiding in an underground shelter. He and his wife, Zoe, actually are building such a shelter to protect themselves against terrorism, germicidal and weather warfare.

"I'd love to say I trust our systems to protect us, but how can I?" says Hieronimus, who points out that Iraq has built such shelters to protect its dictator.

Elizabeth Eden, the daughter of a psychic with the same name in Bel Air, had a momentous dream the night of the Jan. 15 deadline.

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