The coronavirus pandemic has affected nearly every facet of everyday life, and new studies show this is extending beyond waking hours, into many of our dreams.
For research published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology on Oct. 1, scientists analyzed the dreams reported by 811 people in Finland. They reported 55% of their bad dreams experienced during a COVID-19 lockdown were related to the pandemic. They also reported sleeping longer, having more nightmares and waking up more during the night, compared to the period before the pandemic. Read on, and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had Coronavirus.
A "Shared Mindscape"?
The Finnish researchers compiled the dream topics into clusters, and found several common nightmare themes, which involved "failures in social distancing, coronavirus contagion, personal protective equipment, dystopia, and apocalypse."
"The results allowed us to speculate that dreaming in extreme circumstances reveal shared visual imagery and memory traces, and in this way, dreams can indicate some form of shared mindscape across individuals," said Dr. Anu-Katriina Pesonen, lead author of the study and head of the Sleep&Mind Research Group at the University of Helsinki.
In another study published in the Sept. 25 issue of the journal Dreaming, Harvard researcher Dierdre Bennett collected the dreams of nearly 2,888 people between March and June. She found that people said they remembered more of their dreams than they did pre-pandemic, while women reported a higher increase in anxiety dreams and dreams about death than men. Women reported having more dreams involving sadness and anger, while such an increase was not relayed by men.
Barrett found that common dreams included contracting COVID, along with metaphorical dreams about natural disasters or violence. Early in the pandemic, many people dreamed about insects and monsters, Barrett told NBC News. "I noted several kinds of flying bugs, swarming," she said, nothing that some study subjects dreamed of "masses of wriggling worms coming toward them, or armies of cockroaches running toward them."
Nightmares are a common response to stress and trauma, but bug attack dreams seem specific to the COVID-19 pandemic. Barrett has never seen those in dream studies of witnesses to traumatic events like 9/11 or World War II, she told LiveScience.
"Repeated, intense nightmares may refer to post-traumatic stress. The content of dreams is not entirely random, but can be an important key to understanding what is the essence in the experience of stress, trauma and anxiety," said Pesonen.
How to head off nightmares
So if COVID is haunting your dreams, you're definitely not alone. But there is a strategy you can try to stem pandemic-related nightmares, Barrett told NBC News. Before bed, visualize something specific you want to dream about after you fall asleep. "It might be a favorite person who you're not able to be with during the pandemic, or a place you'd like to visit after the pandemic," she said. Making this choice gives the mind "a competing agenda," she added.
Turning off screens at least 30 minutes before bed was recommended by sleep experts before the pandemic to help ensure a good night's rest. It's especially important now, and you might want to try to extend that time. Other studies have found that poor quality sleep negatively affects everything from weight to heart health to cancer risk.
And do everything you can to prevent getting—and spreading—COVID-19 in the first place: Mask, get tested if you think you have coronavirus, avoid crowds (and bars, and house parties), practice social distancing, only run essential errands, wash your hands regularly, disinfect frequently touched surfaces, and to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.