Having Strange Dreams During the Pandemic? You’re Not Alone

Research shows an uptick in vivid dreams and nightmares since the onset of COVID

Posted Dec 30, 2020

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Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has not only disrupted our waking lives, it’s also left a mark on our dreams.

Three anthropologists at the University of Toronto have confirmed that the majority of people feel their dreams changed after the onset of the pandemic, with many reporting more vivid imagery and more frequent nightmares.

Leela McKinnon, Erica Kilius, and Noor Abbas surveyed 84 university students from 22 different countries on the dreams they had in the early lockdown stage of the pandemic. Three-quarters of the study participants felt their dreams had changed since the pandemic began. They were dreaming more vividly than before, they dreamt more often of family and friends, and they had more frequent nightmares.

“That’s exactly what we would expect if outside anxieties and fears come into dreams, because that’s what people are experiencing in real life,” says McKinnon, one of the survey authors. “It seems that dreams are related to outside stressors.”

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That doesn’t mean that people are literally dreaming about COVID-19. Only about a third of the students remembered having dreams about features of the pandemic, like social distancing and personal protective equipment. More often, pandemic anxieties manifest themselves metaphorically.

One participant in the study dreamt of receiving a restaurant bill for $8,200, making them worry they wouldn’t be able to afford their university tuition. Another dreamer had a nightmare about being unable to move as an enormous ocean wave swept towards them.

Harvard psychologist Deirdre Barrett, who specializes in dream research, found that many people have been dreaming about insects: swarms of wasps, cockroaches, bedbugs, and even grasshoppers with vampire fangs. Barrett believes that’s partly because we use the word “bug” to refer to viruses and partly because a mass of small, dangerous organisms is a good analogy for a microbial threat.

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What’s behind these vivid dreams?

The jury is still out on why humans – along with many other mammals, birds, and reptiles – dream in the first place. One theory is that dreams are nothing but the mind’s attempt to make sense of patterns of brain activity that occur spontaneously as we sleep. Another possibility is that dreams enable us to practice skills and consolidate memories. Finches rehearse their songs and improvise new melodies in their dreams, while studies have shown that people will often dream about an activity they’ve just learned and be better at it when they awaken.

Dreaming may also prepare us to face real-world dangers. Although the experiences we have in our dreams may not be realistic, they allow us to practice how we would behave in a crisis. The University of Toronto researchers believe our COVID-inspired dreams could support this threat-simulation model of dreaming. The fact that we’re having more anxiety dreams during the pandemic suggests that those dreams may be an evolutionary adaptation, one that helps us survive in precarious circumstances by rehearsing what we’ll do if things go awry.

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A man, eyes closed, reclines his head into a bush of pink flowers.
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Overcoming anxiety dreams

If your COVID dreams are bothering you, the best advice is to practice good sleep hygiene. Keep a regular sleep schedule. Irregular sleeping patterns can cause REM rebound – deeper and longer dream states that occur when you finally do catch up on your sleep – which is associated with disturbing dreams.

It’s also important to give yourself time to unwind before bed by shutting off your electronic devices and reading a book or meditating instead. That will enable you to fall asleep more quickly and prevent you from seeing a worrisome piece of news before bed.

Most of all, if you are having unusually vivid or distressing dreams right now, keep in mind that many other people around the world are having the same experience. “We would reassure people that this appears to be normal,” says Kilius, one of the University of Toronto researchers. “They aren’t alone.”