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How and why the coronavirus pandemic has changed our nighttime dreams

Since the start of the pandemic, many people around the world have noticed uncanny changes in the nature of their nightly dreams. They report having stranger, more unsettling, and more vivid dreams. We have spoken to two dream experts to better understand this phenomenon.

“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.”

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These are just a few of the examples that Medical News Today readers gave when we asked them what kinds of dreams they had been having since the start of the pandemic.

Since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, many countries around the world have taken stringent measures to curb the spread of the virus. These have included regional and nationwide lockdowns and travel restrictions.

People have been reporting the impact that the pandemic and resulting measures have had on their mental health and general well-being, but other effects have surfaced as well.

One of the most unusual phenomena that people have reported during the pandemic is a change in the nature or intensity of their nighttime dreams.

More and more people have been noticing that, in recent months, their dreams appear to have become stranger than usual, or that they have taken on a more vivid quality.

Indeed, this phenomenon has become widespread enough for it to have gained nicknames such as “quarandreams” or “corona dreams.”

So, what is going on? To learn more, MNT interviewed two experts on dreams and dreaming: 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

To inform her book Pandemic Dreams, Barrett conducted a survey with 3,700 people from around the world. They described around 9,000 dreams — all of them experienced since the start of the pandemic.

She noticed a few themes popping up more often than usual, such as dreams highlighting:

  • fears and anxieties
  • trauma
  • solution-seeking
  • post-apocalyptic or post-pandemic scenarios

“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.”

– Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D.

According to the researcher, a lot of people’s current dreams seem to reflect fears and desires that the pandemic has accentuated.

In a dedicated article, Aspy also writes about the ways in which people’s dreams seem to have changed during the pandemic. He notes, “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.

According to Barrett, many dreams seem to echo the sense of social isolation that some people have been experiencing due to physical distancing measures and other barriers that have been preventing them from connecting with friends and family.

“[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 nightmares or unpleasant. In fact, many people seem to experience in dreams what they cannot currently have in real life.

Dreams in which “the person is cured of the virus or discovers a cure for all mankind” have also been quite widespread in this period, Barrett told MNT.

“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.

Essential workers and those who have experienced ill health during the pandemic seem to be the most likely to have disturbing dreams, according to the results of Barrett’s survey.

“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 us.

Stressful times lead to more vivid dreams

Why have people’s dreams become more intense, more vivid, or more bizarre? What are the factors that explain these shifts?

Both Barrett and Aspy point to the role that experiencing highly stressful or traumatic events plays in the nature of our nighttime 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 also speaks of 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.

This means that the high exposure to a sense of anxiety, as well as the information overload about the pandemic through different kinds of media, are bound to influence what people dream at night.

“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

People can sometimes experience lucid dreams. These are dreams in which the sleeper is aware that they are asleep and dreaming.

Aspy is an expert on the science of lucid dreams. He has also extensively researched strategies that can help a person train to experience lucid dreams.

Given the changes that many people have been experiencing in their regular dreams, MNT asked Aspy if he had had any reports of changes in people’s lucid dreaming patterns.

“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 us.

“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.”

– Denholm Aspy, Ph.D.

Aspy also explained that lucid dreaming techniques could come in handy at this time. He suggested that they could help people have less anxious dreams and, therefore, better sleep.

In his article, he suggests a technique called “dream incubation.” This 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 told MNT that “dream incubation” can be a helpful way to prevent anxious dreams and go to sleep with a positive mindset.

“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.”

– Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D.

“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.

According to Aspy, learning to lucid dream might also be helpful for those who would like to gain more control over their nighttime experiences.

“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.”

In a previous Special Feature, we discussed some of the most popular techniques that people can apply to learn how to lucid dream.

For more tips and advice on how to achieve better sleep, visit our many dedicated articles, including:

  • How can I get to sleep easily?
  • How can I get enough sleep?
  • Light sleeper: Meaning, remedies, and when to see a doctor
  • Having trouble sleeping: What to know

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