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COVID and Sleep: Sweet Dreams Aren’t Made of This

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May 27, 2020 -- Dreaming of better days? Beach vacations? How about … bugs?

Shutdowns and sheltering in place are giving us lots of extra time to nap and sleep. In fact, since the coronavirus pandemic pressed pause on our lives, America’s time asleep has jumped nearly 20%. But instead of waking bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, you might end up feeling, well, somewhat bug-eyed.

Vivid dreams about bug attacks top the list of crazy COVID-19 nightmares, says Deirdre Barrett, PhD, a Harvard psychologist and dream researcher who launched an international survey about pandemic-related dreams. From “swarms of wasps, flies, and gnats to armies of roaches and wiggly worms,” bug attacks are “by far the most common metaphor” seen in the more than 8,000 dreams reported on her survey since March.

“I think part of it traces to the slang use of the word; we say we have a bug to mean we have a virus,” says Barrett. “Dreams can be kind of pun-like in using visual images for words.”

Scientists and dreamers across the world have noted an increasing trend in bizarre, vivid dreams -- and the ability to remember them -- since the coronavirus outbreak. More than 87% of Americans have had unusual dreams since the pandemic began, according to a Sleep Standards survey of 1,000 dreamers in the United States.

Nightmares, dreams, and sleep disturbances are common in times of trauma and disaster. Research showed a significant increase in the number and intensity of dreams after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Theories dating back to the times of Freud say our dreams are rooted in reality. When something scary happens, we worry more by day and have more anxious dreams at night. And let’s face it: Life’s current wear-a-mask-don’t-touch-this-stay-inside-and-6-feet-away-from-others theme can be a bit scary right now.

“We tend not to dream of what is mundane to us, but rather prioritize what has affected us emotionally, and do so often in a metaphorical way,” says Mark Blagrove, PhD, a psychology professor at the Swansea University Sleep Laboratory in Wales.

Tiffany Gaddy is a 31-year-old mom in Atlanta and a self-described vivid dreamer who’s seen an uptick in bizarre dreams since COVID-19.

“The anxiety of my dreams increased shortly after staying home,” says Gaddy, who has been sheltering in place with her husband and toddler daughter. She recently dreamed her grandparents bought a palace-sized home and her entire family was invited to stay there. But she couldn’t find a room with a suitable bed for her and her daughter.

“The only room I could find, in my dream, had beds everywhere, like the pictures of the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina,” Gaddy says. “I decided that wasn’t safe, so we left.”

But in her dream, leaving home was just as dangerous. Her car gets hijacked, so she grabs her daughter and escapes. “We try to hide out at a restaurant, but they won’t let us in because we don’t have masks.”

The foundation of Gaddy’s dream isn’t unusual. Pre-pandemic studies show that being chased, kidnapped, attacked, and escaping trouble top the list of common recurrent dream themes in adults.

Why Are We Dreaming So Much?

You’re more likely to have and recall vivid dreams when you awake from rapid eye movement (REM) sleep -- the last and deepest part of the sleep cycle. According to the National Sleep Foundation, you typically reach this stage about 90 minutes after falling asleep. Yet it’s not a one-time-and-you’re-done event. Your brain normally moves through this REM sleep cycle several times a night -- about once every hour and a half. So the longer you sleep, the more dreams you can have.

“We’re now sleeping somewhat longer than usual, on average, and that results in more dreams,” says Barrett. “So what we’re really seeing is a REM rebound for a lot of people. They remember dreams a little more, and their dreams are more anxious.”

Yet, if you’re a fortunate sleeper who doesn’t toss and turn and have frequent awakenings, you might not remember your dreams. The key to maximum dream recall is to sleep as long as possible but wake up a lot.

“You need to awaken out of a dream to remember it. If you pass on to another stage of sleep, it will be lost forever,” Barrett says.

What Are We Dreaming About?

Dreams that exaggerate loneliness, a loss of control, stress about work, or the fear of becoming sick are recurrent ones being shared on websites, social media posts (like Twitter’s #IDreamofCovid or #CovidDreams), and in research surveys like Barrett’s “Dreams related to the covid-19 coronavirus pandemic” survey. (If you want to share your dream, you can do so here.)

Barrett wants to find out how our pandemic dream patterns compare to those seen after 9/11 and other times of trauma. One difference that could sway our subconscious experiences is the lack of visuals with the current threat.

“There were such obvious visual images to go with 9/11, with buildings coming down, but the virus is basically an invisible threat, so there’s a larger proportion of metaphorical dreams with COVID,” says Barrett, author of The Committee of Sleep.

So back to the bugs, the No. 1 metaphor plaguing COVID-19 dreamers: Barrett recalls one woman dreamed of giant grasshoppers with vampire fangs attacking her, while another person had a giant tarantula slip through her mail slot.

Other vivid COVID-19 dreams reported on Barrett’s survey:

  • A woman dreamed that the blue stripes on her stomach were the first signs of her being infected by the virus.
  • One person called an ambulance, and an Uber came instead.
  • Dreamers get a pill or shot from a doctor or nurse to treat the virus, but they receive poison instead.
  • A person is euthanized because they have the virus.

Other dreams involve family or loved ones, sometimes with a twist or a history-repeats-itself theme. In the Sleep Standards survey done in mid-May, more than one in five people (21.2%) said they had vivid COVID-19 dreams (or nightmares?) about ex-lovers, even though they were in bed with their current partner.

First Responders: More Literal Dreams

While some of us dream more vividly now about bugs and ex-boyfriends, health care workers and other first responders say broken ventilators get a starring role in their dreams today. Doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel are more likely to have dreams about saving someone’s life, and not having any control over what’s happening.

“First responders tend to have more extreme nightmares that are literal replays of what is happening,” Barrett says.

A recent theory of dreaming posed by Bill Domhoff, PhD, a research professor of psychology at UC Santa Cruz, says that dreams are “mostly realistic simulations of waking life.” Pandemic dreams being collected and cataloged by researchers worldwide seem to support that theory.

A growing number of research groups are looking at dream data to find out if there are differences in dream scenarios and intensities between health care workers and other professionals and those sheltering at home.

“Our experience has been that there is quite a transparent referral of current waking life,” says Blagrove. “For example, a doctor dreams of working on a novel cure for COVID using boiled quails' eggs. When following back the surface content of the dream, the doctor remembered buying chocolate quails' eggs for the family as a comfort.”

COVID-19 Dreams: In Living Color

Blagrove and illustrator Julia Lockheart recently launched the Dreams Illustrated and Discussed (DreamsID) art-science collaboration, a unique project that explores a dream’s links to recent waking life concerns and events. Blagrove discusses the characters, feelings, motivations, and scenarios of a dream with an individual, while Lockheart simultaneously paints it.

“It seems that all aspects of the pandemic, negative or positive, are being dreamt of,” Blagrove says. “We have had a dream of the natural world becoming sinister with altered leaves on trees, a dream needing to prepare for a funeral, and a dream of going out to try to get food for the family.”

Paying attention to your dreams is important, says Barrett. A nightmare can rattle you and affect your mood and behavior the next day, causing what some call a bad-dream hangover. Yet research suggests that dreaming about scary stuff is a necessary defense mechanism -- it makes our brains better able to handle and react to the real-life stress and emotions.

Talking about your dreams with others -- however you do it -- can help you stay connected and manage stressful emotions. Support groups and talk therapy have long been encouraged as ways to nurture and console people during difficult times.

“I never would have predicted this groundswell of vividness of dreaming or interest about dreams,” says Barrett. “It’s a crisis, but it’s a crisis where we stay home and can share dreams over breakfast.”

Want to document your COVID-19 dreams? Place a notebook and pen on your bedside table and jot down any thoughts you recall the first moment you wake up. Whether or not you share your sleepy thoughts and COVID-19 dreams with others is up to you.

Medscape Medical News Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on May 27, 2020

Sources

Deirdre Barrett, PhD, psychologist, dream researcher, Harvard Medical School; author, The Committee of Sleep.

Tiffany Gaddy, Atlanta.

Mark Blagrove, professor of psychology, Swansea University Sleep Laboratory; member, DreamsID.com science-art collaboration.

Human Brain Mapping: Fear in dreams and in wakefulness: Evidence for day/night affective homeostasis.

International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health: “Mental sleep activity and disturbing dreams in the lifespan.”

BrainFacts: “What’s in your nightmares? The top 5 recurring dreams of adults and kids.”

American Academy of Sleep Medicine: “What we can learn from 9/11 about dreams and nightmares.”

Frontiers in Psychology: Freud's dream interpretation: A different perspective based on the self-organization theory of dreaming.

National Sleep Foundation: “What happens when you sleep?”

UC Santa Cruz: “New neurocognitive theory of dreaming links dreams to mind-wandering.”

Frontiers in Psychology: Testing the Empathy Theory of Dreaming: The Relationships Between Dream Sharing and Trait and State Empathy

National Sleep Foundation: “Sleep guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

National Sleep Foundation: “Do dreams affect how well you sleep?”

National Sleep Foundation: “Sleep recommendation durations.”

Frontiers in Psychology: “The functional role of dreaming in emotional processes.”

American Academy of Sleep Medicine: “Treating nightmare disorder in adults.”

Winchester Hospital: “Support groups: How do they help?”

News release, Sleep Standards.

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