Living in quaran-dream. A year of constant pandemic has led to a somewhat surreal tone in our daily lives and for some this has extended into night. COVID-19 has influenced our dreams (and nightmares) both in content and quantity. Earlier this year, a rise in vivid dreaming was seen globally — social media began to report this ‘dream surge’ and we began to see #coronavirusdreams and #lockdowndreams trending.
As it stands, we tend to dream more when faced with unfamiliar experiences. Throughout our lifetime, there has not been anything quite as global and universal as this pandemic. Now, with these exceptional circumstances, COVID-19 dreams reflect our own concerns about the pandemic and social distancing. Is this sleep phenomenon genuine? Has social media had any influence on what is happening?
The changes in dreaming were twofold: More dreaming (or at least greater recall) and change in tones and vibe. Generally, most of our dreams are fairly mundane and thus immemorable – but when strong emotions (like those associated with the pandemic) are triggered, a much more vivid dream will occur and thus be remembered.
45% of nurses in Wuhan, China who were treating COVID patients reported experiencing nightmares
A recent study found that 29% of US participants recalled more dreams during COVID-19 than before. Mid-lockdown, I could remember dreams for a fortnight due to their clarity and bizarreness.
Furthermore, our emotions and types of dream are changing — perhaps derived from personal concerns about our health. Dream reports from isolating Brazilians had increased proportions of words relating to sadness and loneliness. When these negative emotions were present, they were much more common amongst those who suffered high levels of stress during the day such as the key workers.
45% of nurses in Wuhan, China who were treating COVID patients reported experiencing nightmares — significantly greater than the 5% of the general population. These nightmares are likely a way of comprehending fear while in safety.
There are various factors, which may have contributed to the surge of dreams:
1) Disrupted Sleep
2) Increased Negativity
3) Social Media
Obviously sleep patterns changed dramatically when lockdown started. Sleep schedules were characterised by increased insomnia — particularly among front-line workers but also in the concerned public. On the other hand, working-from-home and removing commutes improved quality of sleep for many.
Dreaming also enables us to regulate our emotions by altering fearful memories and simulating social situations
This is important because sleeping longer leads to a better recall of dreams. It also correlates with increased rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, where the most vivid dreams will occur and composes 25% of total sleep time. REM sleep occurs more frequently in the morning and thus more strange dreams have been recalled.
Is anyone else having covid anxiety dreams? I dreamt I was in a busy department store and no one was masking and several people coughed and then I drowned in invisible quicksand.— Decorative Gourd Kuri (@therealkuri) September 21, 2020
Constantly, we switch between deep and light sleep — cycling about every 90 minutes. However, an increased need for lighter REM sleep emerges as the need for deeper recovery sleep is satisfied. Why is REM sleep so important? Research suggests that REM sleep mainly aids us in solving problems using long-term memory stores and inner creativity; this may explain why so many dreams in 2020 involve creative attempts to deal with the pandemic.
Dreaming also enables us to regulate our emotions by altering fearful memories and simulating social situations; this may explain why pandemic concerns have appeared so often in dreams this year. Dream reports often show anxiety related to infection, finances and isolation.
I dreamt of walking onto a tram in Nottingham where friends I haven’t contacted in years decide to avoid me and suddenly a dog decides to chase me
The metaphorical nature of dreams is likely a way for us to interpret and analyse disruptive events, according to research. Since we have no direct visual link to the virus, like a fight with a friend might, we are forced to draw on our own memories to create imagery that is symbolic of our emotions.
Dreamt that someone arrived for antibody testing on horseback wanting the horse to be tested. I think I need to take some time off!— Beverley Steele (@Bev_La) June 8, 2020
How? By drawing on memories with the same associated emotions. Once understood, the extinguishing of fear occurs by generating new ‘safety memories’. These components combine with pre-existing beliefs to create a context in which these metaphors seem incompatible with daily life and, as a result, are incompatible with feelings of fear and worry. Thus, the dreaming process produces ‘safety’ imagery that overlaps the original fear, helping to reduce distress.
Is that why, in lockdown, I dreamt of walking onto a tram in Nottingham where friends I haven’t contacted in years decide to avoid me and suddenly a dog decides to chase me? Ignoring the latter, do these images mean I subconsciously had feelings of loneliness linked to social distancing? Or was it just a random, meaningless dream incorporating old memories?
Of course, it could just be that people choose to believe this and, through sharing this trend on social media and talking about it, cause themselves to dream more. When news of this ‘surge’ in dreams began to circulate and go viral on social media, people may have remembered their dreams more and recalled features that could be associated with the pandemic.
This effect is clear when you visit @IDreamofCovid19 — a Twitter account that collates some of the best dreams linked to the pandemic. However, pandemic dreaming (and social media coverage) displayed a gradual decline in April — suggesting that any amplifying effect has come and gone.
Having weird dreams lately. Last night I dreamt I was at the grocery store & everyone but 1 woman was wearing a mask. She visibly looked sick. Tried to avoid her, but she was on every aisle. She ended up in my checkout line & was coughing on my groceries. Woke up after that— Northside Mike (@Northside_Mike) October 15, 2020
Until a vaccine is available, which will likely still be a while, threats of infection and social distancing will remain. Could virus concerns just become integrated into dreams? And if they do, will this help or hinder how we adjust to the post-pandemic future? Our dreams will inevitably vary depending on how resilient we are.
The virus is not leaving soon. If our dreams are taking a toll on us, a call to a GP or counsellor may be helpful. Nevertheless, we should allow ourselves to lighten up and appreciate the extra hours of sweet slumber. Dreams are vivid and vexing, but they are also impressionable and often inspirational.
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