The pandemic has affected every aspect of life, from work to exercise to the way people think about their potted plants (if you're talking to yours, no judgement). And the stress of the current moment, including widespread protests against police brutality, is also changing peoples' dreams. According to ongoing research from the Lyon Neuroscience Research Center in France, there's been a 15% increase in negative dreams since the beginning of the pandemic among the French population alone. Worldwide, that adds up to a lot of nightmares, and if you're dreaming about floods and earthquakes, there are clear psychological reasons for it, experts say.
Nightmares in general may be soaring right now because of a unique combination of boredom, stress, and panic. Dream researcher Dr. Deirdre Barrett, an assistant professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Harvard University, has reported an uptick in dreams about natural disasters in the wake of the coronavirus's arrival in the U.S. But there could be various reasons for your nighttime relivings of 2012 or Geostorm.
The coronavirus bears many of the psychological hallmarks of a natural disaster, from unpredictability to huge changes in everyday life and high risk to health and livelihoods. "While we may or may not be having nightmares about COVID specifically, the broad impact is akin to a natural disaster," Joshua Klapow Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, tells Bustle. "The uncertainty and hardship absolutely can trigger thoughts of other fearful or anxiety-manifesting situations."
Your brain may be interpreting the feelings and sensations of everyday life as overwhelming, terrifying, and difficult to control. "These are absolutely consistent with natural disaster themes as well as emotional states of fear," Klapow says. The connection between an earthquake and COVID-19 is, for the subconscious, kind of logical.
Bennet Davis, M.D., pain rehabilitation program director at Sienna Tucson treatment center, tells Bustle that nightmares might also channel pandemic stress into recognizable figures and symbols. "Fears of the novel coronavirus are projected onto threats like zombies, bugs, and shadowy figures, which represent the pandemic metaphorically," he says. Natural disasters are another powerful metaphor. Dr. Barrett's research indicates that natural disaster nightmares are common among people who've experienced trauma, for instance, in the aftermath of 9/11.
Nightmares about floods and earthquakes right now might also serve another purpose. "There are many theories of why people experience nightmares," Dr. Seema Sarin M.D., director of lifestyle medicine at healthcare provider EHE Health, tells Bustle. "Some theories indicate that nightmares are ways to simulate threats, and pave the way for us to rehearse methods of threat avoidance." If you're dreaming about natural phenomena a lot right now, it could be your brain's way of problem-solving and working out a way to survive the crisis.
Nightmares can be really scary, so Dr. Sarin recommends taking time for yourself to deal with your anxiety during the day, exercising, and meditating if you can. Confronting your stress in the daytime may mean you're less likely to go full '90s disaster-movie in your dreams.
Bennet Davis M.D.
Joshua Klapow Ph.D.
Dr. Seema Sarin M.D.