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Have You Been Having Weird Dreams Lately? Here's Why

Why you've been having such vivid dreams during quarantine.

Deposit Photos
Source: Deposit Photos

Are you dreaming more vividly these days, and remembering more of your dreams? Are you having nightmares that wake you from sleep, or leave you feeling anxious the next morning?

If you said yes to either of these questions, you’re not alone. These days, a lot of us are having darker, more upsetting dreams—and remembering them more often.

A recent poll of more than 2,000 people showed:

  • 53% of respondents have had an increase in vivid dreams since quarantine began.
  • 21% of respondents have had an increase in nightmares, with at least one this past week.
  • 45% of respondents have noticed a small difference in their sleep for the worse.
  • 29% have noticed a significant difference in their sleep for the worse.

What are the obvious offenders? Social isolation, massive upheaval to daily routines, fears about health and finances, and deep uncertainty about what lies ahead, as well as a shifting combination of boredom, overwork, stress, and anxiety. That pretty much describes how most of us are living these days, since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s challenging our diets. A lot of us are moving from one “comfort food” meal to the next. (Think of all the lasagnas and banana breads on Instagram.)

It’s challenging our exercise. Stuck at home working and, in many cases, simultaneously taking care of children, many of us are struggling to get our regular exercise, mostly because we feel exhausted.

It’s challenging our sleep. I’m hearing from so many readers and patients about insomnia symptoms, restless awakenings, and racing thoughts they can’t quiet at night. I wrote recently about the deep connections between stress and sleep—connections we’re all experiencing strongly right now. And many of you are having nightmares and disturbing dreams. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the coronavirus and nightmares, and why our bad dreams aren’t an entirely bad thing.

Our dream content has changed (normal vs. stress vs. nightmare). I’ve had many people tell me their dreams are tackling the coronavirus directly, dreaming about hospitals and illness and trouble breathing (these dreams can also be signs of sleep apnea and snoring). Others are dreaming about the virus in different ways, such as nightmares about violence, loss, uncertainty, and threats.

One of my patients dreams of a friend who is an ER doc in a city hard hit by the virus, getting sick and dying on a gurney. (Thankfully, that friend is healthy in real life.) Another told me she’s having a recurring dream about being lost inside an unfamiliar building she can’t find her way out of. (We consider this a stress dream.)

Dreams seem more REAL. People are having stranger dreams, with odd characters and vivid combinations of the ordinary and the bizarre. And these dreams often feel different—more striking, more charged with meaning, more vivid, more real—even if the circumstances of the dreams are fantastical. I’ve talked a lot about dreams and nightmares over the years, and the science behind how nightmares work, and how to help make your dreams more peaceful and positive. The coronavirus pandemic is spurring a whole lot of bad dreams—and a lot of new science studying the phenomena of dreaming.

Here’s what’s being studied in the emerging science of the coronavirus dream world:

Scientists are racing to study every aspect of the coronavirus and Covid-19, the disease it causes. That includes the psychological impact of the global pandemic, its impact on sleep, and its effect on dreams. There is surely much more to come here, but these initial findings shine a light on the psychological upheaval and how it is making its way into our dreams.

  • Anxiety is UP. There’s been a major spike in anxiety in the past several weeks—no surprise here. Scientists at Philadelphia’s Thomas Jefferson University conducted a survey in April and found that about 40% of respondents had symptoms of anxiety intense and frequent enough to warrant clinical intervention.
  • Many dreams are negative and intense. People are having more nightmares and negatively-focused dreams during the pandemic. That’s according to research underway in several countries, including in Italy, one of the countries hardest hit so far by the coronavirus, as well as an ongoing study in France. The Italian study has found that many of its subjects are experiencing nightmares with an intensity that corresponds to post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Dream recall has increased, which increases stress. People are remembering more of their dreams, experiencing what’s known in sleep science as higher dream recall, according to research. That means more of us are taking upsetting dream and nightmare content into our waking days, for an even greater effect on mood and psychological balance, and another source of stress.

Why, exactly, are our dreams being so deeply affected by the pandemic? And how can we calm and quiet these upsetting, sleep-disrupting dreams and nightmares so we can get the sound sleep we need right now? The answers touch on some of the most well-established, compelling theories of dreaming—and on the mechanics of sleep itself.

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