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The Pandemic of Bizarre Dreams: How COVID-19 Evokes the Cognitive Symptoms of Worry

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust us into an alternate universe, to say the least. With the global population in isolation, the need to incorporate masks in our everyday life, our withdrawal from our regular environments and stimuli as well as many troubling changes in our everyday life, psychologists believe that the situation is not only causing alterations in our anxiety and stress levels, but also changing the way we dream—from their peculiarity, the amount of dreams we have to how much we remember them.

Image is courtesy of ABC News.

What are Pandemic Dreams?

Throughout the last decade, major breakthroughs in sleep research have linked our well-being in our waking life with our dreams. Studies have shown that strange dreams can often have symbolic meanings, as they allow us to consolidate our powerful memories from daily psychological stressors in our subconscious. However, nightmares can often be signs of moments of anxiety that go unnoticed in our quotidian lives. In fact, these types of dreams are characterized by “vivid dreams and disturbing content”, according to Susan Rubam, a Yale Medicine psychologist and sleep specialist. She believes that they are “often reflective of our own effort to avoid threats to our security and an estimated 50 to 85% of adults are reporting nightmares during the coronavirus pandemic.”

Consequently, research institutions have found that these pandemic dreams are often associated with stress, isolation and worsening changes in sleep patterns in our lives. In an effort to deduce the effects of the pandemic on mental health, Elizaveta Solomonova, a postdoctoral fellow at McGill University, along with Rebecca Robillard of the Royal's Institute of Mental Health Research in Ottawa, launched a survey in May 2020 for 968 North American people above the age of twelve. They found that thirty-seven percent of people were experiencing unusually bizarre, vivid dreams, many of which were composed of uncomfortable situations where the participants were being threatened by others or failing to complete regular tasks.

The graph below shows the percentage of individuals who reported a decreased quality of sleep during the coronavirus pandemic, due to their increased stress. A decrease in the quality of sleep is associated with more awakenings, an interrupted circadian rhythm, an increase in nightmares and a shorter duration of sleep. Notably, large portions of the population showed a high increase in all effects mentioned.

Image is courtesy of Frontiers in Psychology.

Through the examination of the five themes psychologists examine in dream analysis (ie. settings, social interaction, characters, emotions and misfortunes), the researchers determined that confusion, anxiety and fear, distress and lack of control were the most common emotions experienced. Additionally, dreams were reported to be more lifelike and vivid than what the subjects have experienced ever before, and an increased number of nightmares were reported compared to the number of positive dreams. Moreover, one third of the participants reported dreams related explicitly to the circumstances created by the pandemic, such as using personal protective equipment (PPE), being two meters away from others outside one’s household, dreaming about the virus itself or even dreaming of having a meal at a restaurant. Overall, heightened dream recall and higher levels of negative emotions were also reported.

This study supports the psychoanalytic theory of the Continuity Hypothesis of Dreaming coined by austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud in 1899 – that dreams are “consistent with our waking concerns rather than being some outlet for compensation”. Unfortunately, the pandemic is pervading our dreams with negative emotions such as anxiety. However, examining these dreams can help us understand our emotional reactions to the pandemic, and seek to improve our resilience towards adverse situations similar to the one we currently found ourselves in.

Study: The Similarities Between Pandemic Dreams and Anxiety Dreams

Another study from Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario examines how pre-pandemic era dreams are similar to the dreams of people with anxiety. Researcher Teresa L. DeCicco, PhD, and others analyzed comprehensive dream journal entries from nineteen Canadian university students recorded between mid-February to mid-March 2020, as initial stay-at-home orders and physical distancing regulations were put in place across the country. They found that pandemic-era dreams were composed of more location changes, animal, head, food and virus-related imagery compared with a control group of students who wrote their entries prior to the declaration of the pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11th, 2020. This type of imagery resembled dream imagery often described by people experiencing anxiety. Therefore, it can be concluded that pandemic dreams are often similar in nature to the dreams of individuals with anxiety.

REM Sleep: The Location of Our Unusual Dreams?

In particular, the deepest sleep stage of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, which is characterized by rapid eye movement, low muscle tone throughout the body, and a substantial increase in brain activity, causes vivid dreaming. According to Patrick McNamara, an associate professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine, REM sleep is generally used to “handle intense emotions, particularly negative emotions”. Hence, it is understood that this sleep stage is responsible for the production of these abnormal dreams.

During our sleep phases, neurological signals and reactions ultimately activate nerve receptors called serotonin 5-HT2A. This serotonin hormone is the chemical precursor to melatonin, the main neurotransmitter involved in REM sleep, and has an inhibitory effect on certain areas such as the visual cortex and the orbitofrontal cortex of the human brain. This causes an effect known as “emotional disinhibition”, a neurological state in which emotions from the amygdala of the brain are examined in the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for judgement, problem-solving and decision making.

Image is courtesy of Science Source.

It is to be noted that periods of REM become longer over the course of a night’s sleep, increasing “REM density” and causing higher levels of brain activity. Thus, individuals who sleep for a longer period of time are more likely to have longer, more vivid dreams. Actually, according to clinical psychologist Candice Alfano, PhD, because many more individuals are now working from home and experiencing a shortened commute, much of the population is sleeping more compared to their pre-pandemic sleeping patterns. As mentioned before, the longer a person sleeps, the deeper and longer the REM sleep becomes, and this increases the REM density of one’s sleep cycle (ie. the frequency of rapid eye movements, which psychologists believe is reflective to how detailed the imagery in the dream is). So, because people are sleeping later into the morning (when we get our REM sleep), people are not only having more vivid dreams, they are also waking up in the middle of their REM activity, leading to an increased remembrance of the dream.

How to Combat Pandemic Dreams: Getting a Good Night’s Sleep

Because the anxiety and the lack of physical activity caused by the pandemic decrease sleep quality and quantity, optimal functioning of the brain and body is often not achieved. This may indeed negatively affect the immune system and cause psychological distress. Luckily, several proven strategies can be used in order to combat these negative effects:

Creating a regular, healthy daily routine, including healthy meals, the use of strategies to relieve stress and any form of exercise.

  • Following a routine can reduce the stress and uncertainty due to the pandemic.

  • Try to sleep at an earlier time and at the same time every day, even on weekends, in order to avoid oversleeping.

  • Participating in exercise or any movement of the body can help one get more restful sleep at night.

  • Avoid looking at electronic devices at least an hour before bedtime.

  • Add humour into your daily routine by reading a funny book or watching a hilarious television show. Doing this is proven to relieve the emotional stress that has accumulated from throughout the day and reversing negative thinking patterns.

Engage in dream reimagination.

This technique is often used by those suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) with the goal of having less nightmares, by restructuring the negative dream so it has a more positive and favourable outcome.

For example, if you have dreamed of getting a bad mark on a test, try thinking about all the tests in which you did well on!

In an ever-changing world, it is extremely important to engage in healthy behaviours that promote resilience to situations of risk, like the undeniable coronavirus pandemic we find ourselves in. By understanding the various effects of the pandemic such as the bizarre dreams that have been reported in alarming rates by many around the world, it is possible to do so and to use proven strategies to confront these consequences in a healthy way. Through hope and diligent use of healthy habits such as these, our mental health can be drastically improved during this difficult time. There is always light at the end of the tunnel, we must simply be willing to follow it!


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Article Author: Aneri Buch

Article Editors: Edie Whittington, Sherilyn Wen