COVID dreams

Dreaming during a pandemic: How COVID-19 is infiltrating our sleep

Writer: Eve Davies
Editor: Maria Stoica
Artist: Lola Artiles

With COVID-19 an ever-present threat in our lives, the past eight months have been traumatic and anxiety-inducing for many of us. Some have noticed that these daytime stresses have infiltrated their dreams; anxiety has bred weird and wonderful characters who have taken a starring role in the world of their subconscious mind. These nighttime narratives have been becoming more unusual and more memorable, but why? What exactly is the cause of this shift in our sleeping lives?

In April of last year, 62% of people reported a change in their sleeping pattern. With fewer commitments as a result of the enforced inactivity lockdown has brought, many have been getting more sleep than usual. And more sleep means more time to dream.  

Dreams typically happen during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep, and since the periods of REM sleep lengthen over the course of the night, more sleep results in more and longer dreams. Studies also indicate that the periods of REM sleep that occur later in the night are more intense and memorable than those earlier on. Perhaps, therefore, additional sleep is yielding a richer and more plentiful array of dreams.

While this extra REM sleep might explain the increased quantity and memorability of our dreams, the question still arises as to why they are becoming weirder and increasingly in tune with our anxieties. There are two main theories about what the subconscious is doing as we dream: the first is that it is sorting and unravelling a tangled web of emotions, and the second, that it is undergoing preparation for the future.

Sleep specialists from Yale University have suggested that dreams featuring anxieties may provide our brains with space to deal with the difficult emotions associated with the events of our waking lives. Studies show that REM sleep helps people to organise stimuli that have overwhelmed them during the day, allowing important information to be stored. This may include concerns about avoiding individuals who are infected with the virus or exhibiting symptoms.

Dreaming could also be a way for our brains to prepare us, testing scenarios before we experience them in the daytime. A Harvard study which has been cataloguing recollections of COVID-19-related dreams found that the most common themes related to fears of contracting the virus, anxiety around forgetting masks or other precautions and frustrations over isolation and social distancing. As one researcher said, “nightmares are often reflective of our own effort to avoid threats to our security, our survival, or our physical integrity”.

So, what steps can we take if we are currently distressed by our dreams? Scientists suggest that the best way to alleviate these feelings is by talking to others, since sharing dreams stimulates empathy and increases our collective perspective. Talking to friends or finding outlets online are both options. Several online forums have been set up for this very purpose over the last few months. One such forum can be found at lockdowndreams.com, which was developed by a group of UCL postgraduate students as a part of a study into how “the current pandemic colours the themes, narratives, and imagery that appear in [our dreams]”.

If you are currently experiencing bizarre dreams or stressful nightmares, you can take comfort in the fact that your brain is simply doing what it is supposed to do; trying to make sense of difficult emotions and preparing you for the challenges ahead. Chat to a friend or turn to the internet to share your dreams, and you will invariably find that you are not on your own. 

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