When we were all sent home last March because of COVID-19, there was suddenly not much to do. However, with classes online, extracurriculars cancelled and friends trapped in their own homes, there was one activity that pretty much everyone could still do: sleep. And with that sleep came weird dreams. At first, I thought I was the only person experiencing so many strangely vivid and memorable dreams, but then I started hearing the same from friends and family. Now, preliminary data collected from the start of the pandemic is revealing that COVID-19 has indeed had a global effect on dreaming.
“At first, I thought I was the only person experiencing so many strangely vivid and memorable dreams, but then I started hearing the same from friends and family.”Veronica Eskander, Author
One potential reason for the increased volume of dreams is relatively straightforward: more sleep produces more dreams. Especially at the beginning of lockdown, many people worldwide found themselves with extra time to sleep due to a loss of commute time, jobs or school. In a study done in China, the average time spent in bed was found to have increased by 46 minutes. 54% of people surveyed in Finland reported sleeping longer, and in the United States, time spent sleeping increased by 20% from March 13 to 27. As people sleep longer, they typically experience more REM sleep, during which most vivid dreaming occurs. Thus, people became more likely to dream during the longer sleeps that came with COVID-19.
The rise in dream activity is likely not just a result of altered sleeping patterns, as intense dreams and nightmares have likewise been reported after other traumatic events, such as 9/11 or after wartime for combat veterans. Stressful events seem to generate stressful dreams.
The stress caused by COVID-19 is also manifesting itself in the topics of many people’s dreams. According to a Harvard researcher who is currently collecting data on COVID-19 dreams, a large number of these vivid dreams are focused on events related to the pandemic, either directly or symbolically. In the beginning, there were many reports of anxious dreaming in which the dreamer or others were failing to practice social distancing and mask-wearing protocols. Now, people are having more dreams about isolation. Another common dream subject is disaster; people are reporting what appear to be metaphorical dreams of bug invasions or natural disasters, such as earthquakes and tsunamis representative of COVID-19.
Higher levels of stress and anxiety can also have an effect on dreaming by causing restless sleep. A higher probability of waking up during the night due to stress evoked by the pandemic means a greater chance of waking in the middle of a dream and then remembering that dream.
“Higher levels of stress and anxiety can also have an effect on dreaming by causing restless sleep.”
Researchers are still in the process of collecting and analyzing global data on how coronavirus has been altering people’s dreams. It will be interesting to see what the results of these studies will show about how and why our dreams have changed, and the fact that these studies even exist is also somewhat reassuring. During these times, it is comforting to know that one is not alone in experiencing new and potentially frightening occurrences. Knowing that others are also noticing changes in their dreams can help one feel less alone in the midst of all of this.