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Did the pandemic change our dreams? Are we dreaming more? Do we have more nightmares? Do people who have COVID-19 have nightmares?
Studies show that both our waking and dreaming lives were influenced by the pandemic. While we were preoccupied with the pandemic itself and the profound changes in our habits and lifestyles, our dreams reacted and included these new realities into our dream vocabularies. Here’s what we know about dreams during covid.
Increased interest in dreams
Since the early days of the pandemic, dreams were widely discussed in the media. It was as if the first lockdowns created conditions where we were suddenly and unexpectedly able to sleep more, dream more and, in the context of diminished professional and social lives, were able to pay more attention to our subjective experiences. Many news stories described an increase in bizarre and vivid dreams, and the many ways, both literal and symbolic, in which the virus infected our dreamworlds. Dream researcher at the University of Montreal, Tore Nielsen, described this as the “opening of oneiric floodgates.” Indeed, as we were forced to slow down, we could no longer ignore our mental lives and many people claimed to be dreaming more than ever.
A number of possible explanations exist for increased dreaming during Covid. First, we tend to have our longest, most immersive, and compelling dreams during our longest period of rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep, which typically happens in the early morning. Since many people suddenly started sleeping in, they started remembering more dreams. The second possibility is that stress and anxiety that accompanied these strange times fragmented our sleep, and so if we sleep lighter and wake up more often during the night, we would remember more dreams, as well. The third idea is that extraordinary times require extraordinary efforts to adapt, and so increased dream recall reflects that our minds are working around the clock, trying to make sense of this unusual situation.
During the early weeks of the pandemic, Harvard researcher Deirdre Barrett was one of the first dream scientists who started collecting and describing dreams associated with COVID-19. She reports that many dreams had themes of the illness and in particular of the looming threat of the illness, often metaphorically expressed in form of bugs and monsters. A website, i dream of covid, contains a collection of curated and illustrated Covid dreams submitted by dreamers during the early days of the pandemic. It shows the multitude of memorable examples of how our dreaming minds dealt with the experience of living under quarantine and with the threat of the disease.
Since then, about 200 research articles from across the world reported the ways in which our oneiric lives reacted to COVID-19. Like many researchers, my colleagues and I considered the pandemic and the measures designed to mitigate its effects (lockdowns, remote work, social distancing, etc.), as a form of a social experiment that would reveal some aspects of our inner lives. In collaboration with sleep researcher at the University of Ottawa, Rebecca Robillard, we collected responses on an online questionnaire during the first wave of Covid, and found that the most common dream themes were:
- Inefficacy (not being able to do what one wanted to do, being late, missing a plane).
- Seeing other humans as threatening (being chased, being attacked).
- Themes of death and dying.
- Themes of the pandemic (hospitals, being ill).
In addition to explicit references to the pandemic, our dreams extracted the existential meaning of the lockdown: being “stuck,” unable to do things we wanted to, seeing others as threatening, and being very aware of the deadly nature of the situation.
Other studies report similar findings. Since the start of the pandemic, novel dream imagery included themes such as social distancing, wearing/not wearing masks, contagion, and others. Being in public without a mask seemed to be the Covid-times version of being in public naked.
Dream themes associatively represented different aspects of the pandemic, such as apocalyptic and dystopian themes, which were reported in a study led by Anu-Katriina Pesonen at the University of Helsinki. Just like in our study, researchers found that high stress was associated with an increased frequency of dreaming of pandemic-related and overall distressing themes.
A nightmare called Covid
Many studies noted an increase in nightmares during the pandemic. Interestingly, a recent international paper led by sleep researcher Serena Scarpelli from Sapienza University in Rome used data collected from fourteen countries in Europe and North America. The authors show an increased frequency of nightmares in patients diagnosed with COVID-19. In addition, those who experienced severe forms of COVID-19 also had a higher incidence of nightmares. Since nightmares are a hallmark of post-traumatic stress disorder, the authors speculate that increases in nightmares in more severely ill COVID-19 sufferers reflect the degree of traumatic or quasi-traumatic experience of the disease.
Nightmares and bad dreams, in general, are often understood as expressions of psychological distress and are associated with increased levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. It is not surprising, therefore, that nightmares may increase during periods of uncertainty and social strife. While nightmares can be spectacularly intense and psychologically distressing, occasional nightmares are quite normal and common, in particular, during challenging or stressful periods.
Our dreams help us make sense of our lives and metabolize new experiences. The pandemic has intensified some affective aspects of our lives in general and of our dream lives in particular. As we were (and still are) adapting to the reality of living in the context of new diseases, lockdowns, and social and occupational insecurity, our nocturnal selves were busy trying to work this new reality into our existing models of the world and of our place in it. Learning to pay attention to our dreams may help integrate unwanted experiences into our lives and may reveal what really matters to us.