Vivid dreams have become a widespread phenomenon during this pandemic. In the UK, Google searches for ‘vivid dreams during lockdown’ increased in April 2020, coinciding with the early stages of the country’s coronavirus response. Most dreams occur during rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep, which plays a key role in the emotional processing of daily experiences and contributes to the consolidation of emotional memory (De Gennaro et al., 2019).

A report by Fitbit revealed that people are sleeping longer during the lockdown and spending more time in deep and REM sleep.

Compared to the more logical and ‘thought-like’ dreams that occur during non-REM (NREM) sleep, those during REM sleep are more illogical and bizarre (Strauss, 2015). Dreams involving positive emotions are less frequent than those with negative ones, and they are greatly related to real-life experiences (De Gennaro et al., 2019). The content of reported dreams can serve as a marker of mental well-being; for example, those with lower levels of peace of mind or high anxiety are reported to have a greater negative dream affect (Sikka, et al., 2018). 

Why are vivid pandemic dreams so common?                

A report by Fitbit revealed that people are sleeping longer during the lockdown and spending more time in deep (i.e., NREM sleep stage 3) and REM sleep. Further, a study of 435 individuals from Austria, Germany, and Switzerland (where 85% of the participants were working from home) demonstrated that 75% of the cohort slept up to 50 minutes longer but was less content with the quality of sleep (Blume, Schmidt and Cajochen, 2020). In pre-lockdown working settings with a fixed schedule, underslept adults deprived themselves mostly of REM sleep by waking up earlier than desired. Now with home working allowing for extra sleep in the morning, REM rebound sleep is likely, which leads to more dreams (Dement, Kryger and Roth, 2017, p. 8).

Dreams during the pandemic revealed that being attacked by insects and invisible monsters are common occurrences, which are likely metaphors of the virus

An online survey on dreams during the pandemic revealed that being attacked by insects and invisible monsters are common occurrences, which are likely metaphors of the virus (Barrett, 2020). Others dreamt about natural disasters like tsunamis and earthquakes as well as mass shootings. Generally, as the virus is an invisible threat, it requires more imagination to visualise. Another common theme closer to reality is getting the virus and fighting for breath. Medical professionals tend to have more realistic dreams mirroring trauma nightmares, as they are faced directly with the reality of COVID-19. At the beginning of the pandemic, several people dreamt of wearing masks and social distancing. For example, a dreamer could be without a mask and in close proximity to a coughing person. Others dreamt about losing money or being unable to get a job. These themes highlight increasing anxiety.

Can dreams be programmed?

During this pandemic, sleep quality and dream content can be affected by fear of contracting the virus, financial concerns, or stress related to factors such as home-schooling children. Dream content might also be impacted by obsessive news reading before bed coupled with the fact that blue light from device screens adversely affects sleep (Cajochen et al., 2011, Chang et al., 2014, Walker, 2018, p. 265-270). To avoid anxiety-related dreams, one should imagine a pleasant anchor such as a beautiful coastline, and use this to initiate a more positive dream (Barrett, 2020). In addition, practising basic sleep hygiene rules are vital (Walker, 2018, p. 341-342). For those still struggling with control of their unconsciousness, seeking professional psychological help is advised.

For those still struggling with control of their unconsciousness, seeking professional psychological help is advised.

17 August 2020

By Adriana Michalak

A PhD student based in the Sleep and Brain Unit, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, University of East Anglia.

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