Remember those back-to-school dreams you used to get toward the end of the summer? During the coronavirus pandemic, you may well be experiencing a quarantine version of those old subconscious musings. When you're waking up in a cold sweat after yet another work-from-home nightmare, you're totally within your rights to ask (with a sleepy yawn) why you're having weird pandemic dreams.
"Dreams are a unique state of consciousness in which individuals experience vivid perceptual images, emotions, and other sensory content," says Dr. Kimberly Fenn, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and director of Michigan State University’s Sleep and Learning Lab. These vivid images are impacted by your stress levels, which may be especially high right now, Dr. Fenn explains. She says your recent spate of strange dreams likely has to do with the pressure and anxiety the current pandemic is bringing into our midst.
"One consequence of extreme stress is that during sleep, individuals are more likely to stay in lighter stages and more likely to wake up in the middle of the night," Dr. Fenn tells Bustle. When you startle awake mid-dream, you stand a better chance of remembering it. And when you remember it, you can Tweet about it — hence the growing popularity of the #pandemicdreams tag on Twitter (because no, you're not the only one having weird COVID-19 dreams).
Why You're Having COVID-19 Nightmares
"Right now, we are more often reaching for media, such as television, movies, or podcasts, and those can have an impact on our imaginations and dreams, especially when consumed before bed," says Dr. Christine Celio, Ph.D., national director of mental health integration at One Medical, a membership-based primary care practice. If you want to avoid nightmares about the current pandemic situation, you might want to avoid watching Contagion before tucking yourself in.
If you're not loving your sleepy brain's newfound interest in public health emergencies, Dr. Celio says adjusting your media consumption can help. Consider swapping out your medical trauma-filled Grey's Anatomy rewatch in favor of Netflix's 72 Cutest Animals. If upsetting TV is a vital part of your coping strategy, Dr. Celio suggests not watching anything too emotionally rough as bedtime approaches.
Your fear and sadness, Grey's-related or not, may also be fueling your COVID-19 nightmares. A PLoS One study published in November tracked the dreams of nearly 70 people in lockdown in Brazil. It found that the more people were suffering in isolation, the more intensely sad, angry, or scary their dreams became. COVID-19 might also affect your ability to remember your nightmares: a May study of 3,031 Americans published in Dreaming found that people who were most strongly affected by the pandemic were very likely to remember their negative dreams.
Why You're Dreaming About Instagram
Since you can't have your friends over to hang out after work, you're probably spending a lot more time on social media to see what everyone else is up to. Dr. Celio says that all this extra phone time may well sink into your sleep time. That's not terribly surprising — if FaceTime is on your mind more often than not these days, it's no wonder that your brain is processing your video chats and increased time on social media while you sleep.
Why You're Having Socially Distant Dreams
During social distancing, you're probably getting more entertainment from media than you are from other people, Dr. Celio tells Bustle. That utter lack of contact may indeed make you more prone to dream about actually hugging another human being. Even for the most introverted folks, not being able to interact in-person with loved ones (or even with random strangers) can be a gigantic stressor. A study published in Frontiers analyzed the dreams of 4,275 people during COVID-19, and discovered that dreams about staying socially distanced — or fighting to stay away from others due to contagion — were super common in 2020.
Why You're Having Dreams About Working From Home
"Dreams that occur during REM [rapid-eye movement] sleep tend to be highly emotional and often bizarre," says Dr. Fenn. With so many people losing their jobs due to the pandemic, and so many others bracing for more wage or employment cuts, working from home is both a luxury and a massive extra stressor.
The Frontiers study also found that bad dreams about working or learning from home spiked this year. It's easy to understand why your amygdala (the emotional part of your brain that makes dreams extra vivid and nightmarish) latches onto stressful work scenarios while you're asleep. Fears about accidentally unmuting yourself on a work call (again) while your kid is yelling for snacks can easily become fodder for your sleeping subconscious.
How Do You Stop Having Pandemic Dreams?
While you can't opt out of social distancing, you might be able to opt out of bad dreams — to an extent. Dr. Fenn recommends getting off your devices (yep, that includes Netflix) for at least 30 minutes before sleeping. Keeping your bedroom cool, comfortable, and quiet can also help you sleep better. You might also want to try easing your stress during waking hours through exercise and meditation, she says.
Dr. Celio suggests cutting back on alcohol before bed. A glass of Merlot might relax you while you're awake, but tends to disrupt your sleep during the night. She also recommends writing things down when you're trapped in a nightmare loop. "Putting together a journal where you jot down your dreams and how they potentially relate to your own anxieties might help you fill in some blanks." Hopefully, once those blanks are filled, your brain will let you live... erm, sleep.
Leigh-Hunt, N. (2017) An Overview of Systematic Reviews on the Public Health Consequences of Social Isolation and Loneliness. Public Health, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28915435/.
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Dr. Kimberly Fenn, Ph.D., professor of psychology and director of Michigan State University’s Sleep and Learning Lab
Dr. Christine Celio, Ph.D., national clinical director of mental health integration at One Medical
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