Whose Dreams Have Gotten Worse?

A new survey shows the negative impact of the pandemic on sleep and dreaming.

Posted May 14, 2020

Kelly Bulkeley
Source: Kelly Bulkeley

The emotional tone of many people’s dreams has become more negative during the COVID-19 outbreak. Women, young people, and college graduates are most likely to say the tone of their dreams has worsened in the past month.

The results of this survey bring into sharper focus the demographic profile of those whose sleep and dream lives have been most disrupted by the pandemic. The survey was conducted on my behalf by YouGov, with fieldwork conducted May 5-7, 2020, with 3,031 American adults (1,351 males, 1680 females). The results have been weighted to approximate the US adult population.

Overall, most people (76%) reported no change in the emotional tone of their dreams. However, twice as many said their dreams were somewhat or much more negative (16%) than somewhat or much more positive (8%).

The spread between negative and positive changes was greater for women (18% and 7%) than for men (13% and 10%). An almost identical spread between negative and positive changes appeared between people with a college education (19% and 6%) versus those without (14% and 9%). In terms of age, people between 18 and 34 reported the most negative and the most positive changes (20% and 13%), while people 55 years and older reported the least changes in both directions (12% and 4%).

The survey asked if participants had experienced a dream relating to the pandemic, and 8% said yes they had, while 92% said no they had not. Somewhat more women than men said yes (9% vs. 6%), and more people from the Northeast than the South (10% vs. 6%). The education difference emerged on this question, too: 4% for high school graduate or less, 8% for some college, 9% for college graduate, and 15% for post-graduate degree.

The survey also asked several questions about the various ways people have been personally impacted by the pandemic. Participants were asked if they had been impacted in any of the following ways: physical health, employment, finances, social plans, mental health. A total of 76% of the participants said they had been personally impacted in at least one of these ways; 22% said they had not been personally impacted.

With the help of research psychologist Michael Schredl, an additional analysis of the raw, unweighted survey responses was conducted, to control for different variables and identify deeper statistical patterns. This extra level of analysis highlighted three important correlations.

  1. The people in this survey who have been personally impacted by the pandemic are significantly younger, more female, and higher educated than those who have not been personally impacted.
  2. Being personally impacted by the pandemic is significantly related to a) increased dream recall in the last month, b) more negative dreams, c) more insomnia, and d) more likelihood of having a dream relating to the pandemic.
  3. Having a dream relating to the pandemic is most likely among people who have been personally impacted in terms of physical health, and especially mental health. Pandemic dreams are more likely to be reported by women and people with higher education, too, but the single factor most associated with reporting a pandemic dream was answering “yes” to the question about experiencing negative mental health (anxiety, stress, depression) during the COVID-19 outbreak.

A practical implication of this survey is that therapists and mental health professionals are likely to find many of their clients experiencing disruptions to their sleep and dreaming, in addition to whatever other problems they are suffering. Although pandemic-related dreams can be very distressing and nightmarish, they actually offer a potentially valuable resource. As Clara Hill, Milton Kramer, Alan Siegel, and other psychologists have shown, working with dreams in therapy has many benefits for the healing process. Particularly in a time of collective crisis, simply listening to people’s dreams is a tangible and meaningful act of caregiving.

One intriguing result is the big difference between those with and those without a college degree. Why would people with a college degree be especially prone to adverse changes in their sleep and dream lives? Two possibilities come to mind. First, perhaps the impact of the crisis on schools, international travel, and urban cultural institutions has been especially disruptive for this group. Second, this group might have more access to expert information about the crisis, and thus they have more reason to be scared.

These two possibilities are not mutually exclusive, and other factors may be at work, too. Further analysis will hopefully illuminate more about this education difference, along with other initial results from the survey data.

In a follow-up post, I will share several examples of pandemic-related dreams from the survey. As with the dreams gathered in a similar survey from last month, most of the reports occupy the nightmarish end of the spectrum. This latest collection includes a new wrinkle: a rise in frightening dreams about social distancing, and the perils and uncertainties of living in a masked world.

Methodology: All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 3,031 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 5th-7th May 2020. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all US adults (aged 18+).