How and why COVID-19 has changed our nighttime dreams

 

How and why COVID-19 has changed our nighttime dreams

 

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, many people have reported having stranger, more vivid, and more unsettling dreams. Medical News Today spoke to two dream experts for more insight into this phenomenon.

Often dubbed as ‘corona dreams’ or ‘quarandreams’, many people have documented their unusually vivid or strange dreams. Some examples that Medical News Today readers gave of these dreams are as follows:

“I was being held hostage by a nasty man with a gun, and the only thing my loved ones were worried about was the fact that I hadn’t been able to prepare their dinner.”

“I had [a dream] where I was stranded at sea with thousands of planes exploding overhead in a red sky, with debris falling all around me.”

“[I dream] about adventure in distant lands, exploring [and] meeting new people whom I’ve never seen [before]. I wake up feeling saddened that I’ll never see them again.”

To gain more insight, Medical News Today interviewed Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D., and Denholm Aspy, Ph.D.

Barrett is an assistant professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Boston, MA. She is also the author of numerous books on dreams, including her most recent work Pandemic Dreams.

Aspy is a visiting research fellow in the School of Psychology at the University of Adelaide in Australia. He is also a lucid dreaming scientist and trainer.

 

How our dream landscapes are shifting

 

Barrett previously conducted a survey with 3,700 people from countries all over the world. Between them, the participants described around 9,000 dreams which had been experienced since the beginning of the pandemic.

Barrett found that several themes became more common than usual, noting that dreams highlighting fears and anxieties, trauma, solution-seeking and post-apocalyptic or post-pandemic scenarios became more common.

“Definitely, people are reporting more dream recall, more vivid dreams, more bizarre dreams, and more anxious dreams since March,” Barrett told MNT.

“Early in the pandemic,” she added, “the best figures indicated that dreams recalled were up by 35%.”

“My survey focuses on the large numbers of these that are about the pandemic. I’m finding those dreams cluster in several categories: literal dreams of coming down with the virus, metaphoric dreams [in which] one is menaced by swarms of poisonous bugs or by a hurricane, tornado, fire, tsunami, or mob of attackers. Other dreams deal with whether one is practicing safe distancing: [Some dreamers] are out and realize they’ve forgotten their masks or gotten too close to someone, [while] others are surrounded by others who crowd too close, touch them, or cough on them.”

In a dedicated article, Aspy also examines how people’s dreams have changed since the beginning of the pandemic. He writes, “We’re […] seeing many reports of direct references to COVID-19 in people’s dreams.”

“People are dreaming about things like wearing face masks, getting into fights at the local supermarket, being admitted to hospital, and in extreme cases, some people are dreaming that they’re unable to breathe or that their friends and loved ones are getting sick and passing away,” he adds.

Barrett adds that many of the reported dreams appear to echo the feeling of social isolation that many people have experienced in lockdown as a result of physical distancing measures.

“[Some dreams] are more focused on the issue of isolation and loneliness, either by directly portraying it as abandonment on a desert island or alternatively with lots of images of friends, extended family, or parties that one is missing,” Barrett pointed out.

However, not all of these dreams are particularly unpleasant. Many people also appear to experience things in dreams that they cannot currently have in real life.

Barrett told MNT that dreams in which “the person is cured of the virus or discovers a cure for all mankind” have also been common.

“There is much more anxiety in these dreams than [one would witness in] a comparison group of dreams from more normal times, but most of them are not nightmares for the average person,” she went on.

According to the results of the survey conducted by Barrett, essential workers and people who have experienced ill health during the pandemic are most likely to have unsettling dreams.

“Healthcare workers on the front lines during the local surges are having classic traumatic nightmares, and people who are sick with [the coronavirus] report classic fever dreams,” she told MNT.

 

Stressful times lead to more vivid dreams

 

Barrett and Aspy both suggest that people’s dreams have become more intense, strange or vivid due to the fact experiencing stressful or traumatic events attributes to the nature of our dreams.

“Any big life change tends to stir up one’s dream life and result in more and more vivid dreams,” Barrett said. She added: “My research after 9/11 found an increase in vividness and anxiety in dreams. The shelter-at-home situation was another big life change beyond the virus threat.”

In his article, Aspy discusses the impact of the “day residue” on nightly dreams. “This is simply the phenomenon where we often dream about the kinds of things that we think about and do during the day,” he explains.

As a result of the high exposure to feelings of anxiety, in addition to an overload of information about the pandemic, people’s dreams have been influenced.

“Also, one of the biggest variables in number of dreams, vividness of dreams, length of recalled dreams, etc., is hours of sleep,” Barrett told MNT. She went on to explain:

“Many [people] who are chronically sleep-deprived due to working long hours and/or an intense social life began catching up on sleep during lockdown, but after the initial week of shopping, figuring out safety precautions, etc. A rebound of lost sleep means an even bigger rebound of lost dream time.”

“We go into REM [random eye movement sleep] every 90 minutes, but each REM period lasts longer than the one before it,” she noted. “If you sleep 4 hours instead of 8, you aren’t getting half your sleep time, you’re getting a quarter of it.”

“Likewise, when you do catch-up sleeping, you are especially catching up on dreaming and have some of the longest REM periods ever — and most vivid dreams,” Barrett said.

 

Try ‘dream incubation’ to prevent anxious dreams

 

Lucid dreams are a phenomenon in which the sleeper is aware that they are asleep and dreaming.

Aspy is an expert on the science behind lucid dreams, and has extensively researched strategies that can help people train to experience lucid dreams.

MNT asked Aspy if he had received any reports of changes in people’s lucid dreaming patterns, similar to how people have experienced changes in their regular dreams.

“Although I’m not aware of any studies that have looked at effects on lucid dreaming during [the] COVID-19 lockdown, I would expect that people would be having more lucid dreams as a side effect of having more stressful dreams about the pandemic,” he told MNT.

“When we’re stressed, we tend to have more intense and unpleasant dreams, and this, in turn, can increase the chance of becoming aware that you’re dreaming. This is because you’re more activated and aware of what’s happening around you when you’re stressed, and so it’s easier to notice the kinds of anomalies within dreams that tip you off to the fact that you’re dreaming.”

Apsy went on to explain that lucid dreams could be beneficial at this difficult time, as they could help people have less anxious dreams and sleep better as a result. In his article, he suggests that people attempt a technique called “dream incubation”, which involves self-suggestion before going to sleep.

“I would say that after dinner time, avoid the news and don’t think about COVID-19. Instead, think about the kinds of things you’d like to dream about,” he writes.

“You can also do things like watching adventure films or reading fiction books about the sorts of dreams that, ideally, you would like to have,” he advises.

Barrett also agreed that dream incubation can be helpful in preventing anxious dreams.

“If someone is bothered by a lot of anxiety dreams, the best way is to think of what dreams you would like to have: dream of loved one, favorite vacation spot, or many people enjoy flying dreams,” she advised.

“If you’re a good visualizer, imagine yourself soaring aloft. If images don’t come easily to you, place a photo or other objects related to the topic on your nightstand to view as the last thing before turning off your light. Repeat to yourself what you want to dream about as you drift off to sleep. The technique makes for a pleasant experience as you’re falling asleep and greatly raises the odds that your dreaming mind will honor your request.”

“In one of my research studies, college students trying to dream on a particular topic were successful 50% of the time, but since some of the failures included no dream recall, the success at simply not having anxious dreams should be even higher,” she added, referring to a study that she and her colleagues published in Dreaming in 1993.

Aspy adds that learning to lucid dream may be helpful for people who would like more control over their dreams.

“One [reason for this],” he said, “is that many of us have more time on our hands and are looking for new hobbies and activities during lockdown.”

“Another is that learning lucid dreaming not only allows you to have new and interesting experiences that you can’t have during lockdown, such as experiences of exploring new places and going on new adventures, but [it] can also help you directly influence your dreams, manage stressful dreams in real time, and change nightmares into more pleasant dreams.”

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