I have been having vivid, sometimes unsettling, dreams since the pandemic started, and I am not the only one. Psychologists are noticing that many people’s dreams have changed since Covid-19. They are not exactly nightmares, but they are definitely pandemic-informed. What are our minds up to? Why such strange dreams now?
The current theory about why we dream is that dreams function to process the events in our waking life. An article in New Scientist explains that “the most intense dreaming activity occurs when our brains are working hard to process recent, emotionally powerful experiences.” In our current situation with frightening pandemic information bombarding us we all have a lot of emotion to process!
In addition, people seem to be sleeping more now that we are working from home and not going out of our houses much. I don’t have to get up at 6am to drive my 12-year-old to school, so now I am sleeping until 9 and sometimes even 10 am!
Some sleep experts posit that because many people are telecommuting and don’t have to rush to work in the morning (or are, unfortunately, laid off) they are less sleep-deprived and are sleeping longer. They suggest that since we are sleeping for more hours, we might be spending more time cycling into REM sleep, which is the sleep phase during which we dream. More time asleep gives our minds time to have more intense, complicated dreams.
According to neuroscience, everyone dreams every night, but due to sleep deprivation and other factors, we often don’t remember those dreams. Many sleep researchers think that because we are spending more time in REM we may also be remembering our dreams better than we did “pre-pandemic.” We may always dream vividly but now are actually remembering those dreams.
I am so fascinated by reports that the mutual experience of COVID-19 is affecting dreams globally that I had to take an informal survey among Facebook friends from my area. Were there similarities and patterns in how this group’s brains were using dreams to process this collectively stressful time? Their responses suggested to me that there are four categories of Covid-19 dreams that prevail in my social circle. Here’s what I found.
It warmed my heart to hear that many friends’ dreams included the appearance of trusted friends and beloved deceased family members who soothe and care for them.
“I dreamed that I was hanging out with my late grandfather, and he was lamenting the loss of his closest friends. Then I was listening to Grandpa Pete’s girlfriend, who was grieving that he was gone. Then there was a storm.”
“I dream about my Mom nearly every night…she keeps me sane.”
Some people’s dreams contained very literal content about the fear of contracting the virus when others carelessly congregated without social distancing and didn’t use masks.
“I am in a crowd of people and I’m saying something like, ‘what’s going on here? Why are you all bunched up together? Where are your masks? Are you trying to kill us all?!’
“I’ve had the recurring dream of being in crowds of unmasked people, often in poorly ventilated places/hallways, etc. and then.. panic! I gotta get out of here! Oh no, what if I got it?”
“Always have vivid, hilarious dreams and that has not changed except I usually am annoyed that people aren’t wearing masks!”
“Just had a dream about being in a crowded restaurant and no one was wearing a mask. I then struggled to get out! First COVID dream I’ve had!”
Specific anxiety dreams that people always have during stressful times have returned.
“Having my old, old, not ready for the math exam dreams, being a loser dreams, sitting in a speeding car, and can’t see over the steering wheel dreams and nakedness dreams.
“I am having dreams that I have always had when I am anxious. They always feature snakes.”
“I’ve been having the doomsday dreams.”
Some people reported dreams that were threatening or alarming and they pegged them as having latent COVID-19 content.
In these dreams, the dreamers identified elements they felt were present because of the pandemic, such as visual manifestations of COVID-19, weird frightening situations, changing social norms, or improbable threats.
“While sleeping by an open window [I dreamed that] colored dots from a foot wide to tiny ones were floating through the air sometimes hitting me like in a cartoon, slapping me upside the head and missing me when I ducked. ”
“Mine have been vivid and weird. I’m always involved in some anxiety-producing situation. They are not pleasant, have not been relaxing, nor do I feel rested. Usually, I wake up with my heart racing and anxious. Not common for me.”
“Last night [I dreamed] I was in JCPenney and there was a lot of furniture. I was commenting to someone about how sad it was that the store was going out of business.”
“Someone took out an ad in the US 1 paper claiming that I attended a party and stole from the owner. In the dream, I was mortified to think that someone would actually believe this much less take out an ad to announce it. The ad was thorough too. It named the owner, the date and the time of the party.”
There are actually other accounts of similar changes of dreams at other times in history associated with sudden change, anxiety, or traumas. Somewhat similar changes in people’s dreams were seen after the 9/11 World Trade Center bombing and in other natural disasters and wars. However, these trends were not as widespread as we are currently experiencing during our global pandemic.
If the dreams you are having during the Coronaviris pandemic are bothering you, or you are experiencing feelings of panic, insecurity or depression, there are steps you can take that are proven to decrease the frequency of disturbing dreams or to change their tone.
Talking to friends or a mental health professional about your dreams can help defang them and process their content.
Some people also find that they can improve what they dream about by focusing on what they would like to dream about before they go to bed.
Deciding not to watch frightening television shows or movies before bed can help make. your dreams more positive. So can avoiding alcohol and similar substances in the evening.
In any case, it can be helpful to know that others are experiencing weird and disturbing dreams right now because of the stress of the pandemic. You are not alone. Historically there is a pattern of vivid, unusual dreaming in times of disaster and uncertainty. As our country starts the process of cautiously opening up we can infuse our dreams with a few more hopeful thoughts about some form of resolution being in sight.