Covid Dreams: Why we dream more vividly during the pandemic

Dreams

Open your eyes in a sweat, take a deep breath, realise with relief: it’s all just a dream. Since the Covid pandemic started, more and more people are experiencing vivid dreams, often nightmares. A study confirms that corona influences our night’s sleep.

“Last night I dreamt I worked in a fishplant on the packing line. In a post-apocalyptic world, people were starving and it was the only food plant. Instead of cod we were packing mystery meat. Then I saw a line of humans go into the back of the plant. On meat hooks”, a woman writes on Twitter with the hashtag #coviddreams. Another twitter-user writes: “I had a dream that the borders opened…I crossed into the US to get yogurt then panicked when I realized I had to quarantine for 14 days when I got home.”

A recent study from Finland confirms that vivid dreams and nightmares are what people experience more often since the Coronavirus pandemic started. According to sleep and dream researchers, there is evidence that the current crisis strongly influences our night’s sleep. It started in 2020, shortly after the pandemic, with a global increase in the reporting of vivid, bizarre dreams. Terms like “coronavirus dreams” and “COVID nightmares” started circulating on social media. However, it is not the virus per se that causes disrupted sleep patterns, but rather the associated stress.

The dreams can be obviously linked to the Corona situation. Others might not, but when digging deeper and interpreting them, links between the pandemic and what is going on in our dreams can be found. Since the pandemic started, many people feel like they have been thrown into an alternative reality. As humans tend to process what they experience in real life in their dreams, it only makes sense that all this uncertainty and anxiety affects their sleep.

There were similar reports in the U.S. following 9/11 in 2001. However, the current surge in vivid dreams is the first to occur globally and in the era of social media, which makes it accessible for immediate study. But what exactly do people dream and why is it happening?

The main topics of the dreams were lost passports, closed borders, and crowded places, but also shaking hands and hugging. Death played a big role as well. More than 4,000 Finnish people described their dreams for the study, which has been published in the magazine Frontiers in Psychology. Therefore, a third of them had dreams which were directly and obviously linked to the pandemic. 

Furthermore, one third woke up more often during the night. On the other hand, more than half of the participants said they slept longer, because they worked from home. Less surprisingly, especially those whose stress level had increased during the pandemic stated that they were suffering from nightmares. 

In another study from the US, 30% of 3,000 Americans indicated that they could remember their dreams better since Corona; 15% had bad dreams; and 8% slept even better than before the pandemic. The more affected someone was by the pandemic, the worse were the dreams. 

In this study, around 250 participants said they had dreams clearly linked to Covid, most commonly about the regulations and being afraid of the disease itself. “We were able to go to a social event, but I was worried the whole time that we should do social distancing”, described one participant. Another one said: “I wake up and remember that someone I love dies of the coronavirus and feel guilty that it didn’t hit me.” 

According to Psychology Today dreams are a way for the human brain to process stress and emotionally charged memories. Therefore, dreams help to work through emotionally difficult and stressful experiences, to reduce psychological load and cause less disruption to the brain’s daily functioning. 

In a pandemic, most people are dealing with unusual levels of stress and the brain uses dreams to process this. So the next time you wake up from a nightmare, instead of being afraid and angry that your sleep has been interrupted, it can help to think of it as the brain doing some essential, important work to ease the intensity and emotional charge of everyday life.

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Pauline Stahl

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