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Has COVID-19 Changed Our Dreams?

Pandemic dreams may be scary, but they might also help us adapt.

Key points

  • Dreams help people process both positive and negative emotions.
  • Dream researchers have never before recorded such great numbers and strength of traumatic dreams as associated with COVID-19.
  • Women's dreams are more profoundly and negatively affected by the present pandemic than men's dreams.
  • Dreams, no matter how bizarre or threatening, may aid people in dealing with threats like viruses and wars in their waking life.

This post was written by Frederick L. Coolidge, a Professor at University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, and Apeksha Srivastava, a Ph.D. Candidate at Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar.

One afternoon, I (AS) was walking through the corridors of a school. It seemed like a weekday, but the building appeared empty. I went to a classroom and glimpsed out of one of its windows facing the playground. I was horrified to see people biting each other and turning into zombies (highly infectious; no treatment) — I was suddenly jolted awake by the sound of my early morning alarm. I remember having this dream sometime during the last week of April 2020. It was the time of nationwide lockdown in India, and there was an overflow of uncertainty and sudden panic about the novel coronavirus disastrously spreading worldwide.

The world has probably always seen dramatic changes in dreams following catastrophic and traumatic events like the 9/11 attacks, earthquakes in Japan, and worldwide tsunami disasters. This phenomenon is consistent with a psychological theory known as the dream continuity hypothesis that suggests dream content is continuous with dreamers’ waking concerns. However, it seems that researchers have never documented traumatic dreams in such numbers and strengths as associated with the COVID-19 virus. In early 2020, when the stay-at-home measures were being implemented globally, numerous people experienced and reported vivid and bizarre dreams related directly or indirectly to this novel coronavirus.

A Psychological Perspective

Dreams and their interpretation stretch back almost as far as written history. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics dating back over 4,000 years ago report dreams about teeth, flying, and being chased. Ancient Egyptians even produced dream glossaries, where an individual dream theme had a specific meaning. Of course, dream glossaries have been completely debunked, as a dream about a key could have dramatically different meanings to an inmate, correctional supervisor, or a key-maker.

In contemporary psychological theory, dreams are thought to symbolize unconscious issues, conflicts, and deeper meanings. According to the Austrian-American sleep researcher Ernest Hartmann, dreaming casts a much wider net of ideas than when we are awake, and the story of the dream provides a context for the dreamer’s emotions. Hartmann further thought that dreamers’ psychological issues were often represented by metaphors of their emotional states (see Coolidge, 2022, for further information about sleep and dreams).

Trauma, Dreams, and Gender

Contemporary psychologist Deidre Barrett has long noted the relationship between traumatic events and dreams, including nightmares and other sleep disturbances. Recently, Barrett (2020) conducted an online study of 2,888 adult dreamers and compared them to dreams before the onset of the present pandemic. One of the first surprising things that she found was that women’s dreams were more profoundly and negatively affected by the pandemic than men. In women, she found significantly fewer positive emotions, increases in negative themes, more anxiety, more themes of anger and hatred, a near doubling of sad dreams and health concerns, and a tripling of death-related themes. In men, she similarly found decreases in positive emotions, increases in negative emotions, and also a doubling of health concerns and tripling of death-related themes.

Barrett interpreted these gender differences in the seemingly lesser impact upon men’s dream content than women’s dream content from the inordinate stress the pandemic uniquely impacts upon women. For example, women have been shown to be at greater risk of being domestic violence victims, disadvantaged more than men when it comes to sexual and/or reproductive health services, and more affected by job losses in part because of a greater proportion of insecure job contracts. Further, it has been shown that women are much more often tasked with the responsibility of child care and elder care than men, and these specific care services have been particularly challenged by the pandemic. Barrett’s overall findings are consistent with the dream continuity hypothesis that waking concerns continue into our dream lives. On a positive note, evolutionary psychologists hypothesize that this general increase in negative themes may actually help dreamers adjust to issues in their waking life.

Death Dreams

Barrett’s finding of the tripling of death-related dream themes in both women and men is consistent with an earlier dream study (Coolidge & Fish, 1984) of 14 terminally ill cancer patients. They found a significant doubling of death themes compared to a control group. Interestingly, they also found that death was far more often projected onto others in the dreams rather than oneself. Combined these studies demonstrate that threatening external conditions (disease, death) do increase themes of death and dying in dreams, and it also supports the well-documented idea that dreams play a major role in processing both positive and negative emotions and in their healthy regulation.

Bizarre and Vivid Dreams as a Function of the Pandemic

One consistent finding across a number of recent dream studies is the overwhelming report of dreams changing moderately or greatly as a result of the pandemic. Kilius et al. (2021) found that 81% of their sample reported this phenomenon, including an increase in the number and length of dreams, ability to recall dreams, vividness and bizarreness, nightmares, sleep awakenings, sleep disruptions, and interestingly more time in bed. These sleep and dream changes have been attributed to the salience hypothesis that proposes the greater psychological impact of a dream, the greater the recall frequency. This phenomenon is also entirely consistent with learning and memory theory that postulates the emotional weight of any thought, during wakefulness or sleep, affects short- and long-term recall, i.e., the greater the emotional weight, the better the recall. Certainly, the emotional weight and baggage of the current pandemic is the cause of the present reports of these dramatic sleep and dream changes.

Conclusion

Dreams can serve as a form of storytelling. They can be a way for individuals to express their realities while maintaining a degree of separation from their conscious emotions. The studies mentioned in this article successfully demonstrate how catastrophic events are reflected in dream life, both directly and indirectly. COVID dreams can be worrisome, but we can also think of them as our helpers, prompting us to adapt to the pandemic world.

It is also fascinating to observe that negative events in all dreams, pre-pandemic and during the pandemic, have much greater negative content than positive content while the opposite is true of reports of waking life. Again, it is thought that the evolutionary value of threatening and negative dreams lies in their value in priming and preparation for subsequent waking threats, whether the threats come from natural disasters like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, biological disasters like the present pandemic, or human-caused catastrophes like interpersonal violence and wars. Thus, it might be helpful if we are all reminded that our dreams, no matter how negative, bizarre, and threatening they may be, could actually aid us in dealing with threats such as viruses and wars in our waking lives.

References

Barrett, D. (2020). Dreams about COVID-19 versus normative dreams: Trends by gender. Dreaming, 30(3), 216-221.

Coolidge, F. L. (2022). The science of dream interpretation. Elsevier.

Coolidge, F. L., & Fish, C. E. (1984). Dreams of the dying. Omega: Journal of Death and Dying, 14, 1-8.

Kilius, E., Abbas, N. H., McKinnon, L., & Samson, D. R. (2021). Pandemic nightmares: COVID-19 lockdown associated with increased aggression in female university students' dreams. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 1-9.

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