Everyone dreams as they sleep. As humans dream, we often dream in color, and have lifelike experiences while dreaming that may involve seeing people or animals, hearing sounds, and experiencing pleasure or pain.
If you noticed a change in your dreams after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as an increased number of dreams, more nightmares, or dreams that feel more emotionally intense, you are not alone. Numerous people have experienced a change in the way they sleep and dream since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Conversationally, people have begun referring to these unusual dreams occurring since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic as COVID dreams.
What Are COVID Dreams?
The term “COVID dreams” refers to the more vivid and frequent dreams and nightmares people first began experiencing at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In many cases, these COVID dreams were accompanied by trouble sleeping.
According to research, the COVID-19 pandemic changed how people dream. However, even before scientific studies were published on the topic, people wondered why they were dreaming differently than before. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, multiple journalists have noted an increase in internet searches about dreams in general and strange dreams in particular.
After the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to reporting an increase in dreams, many people also reported an increase in nightmares.
Nightmares are not simply bad dreams, although the two are similar. Unlike bad dreams, nightmares awaken the sleeper. Once awake, a person who just had a nightmare continues to feel anxious, fearful, or distressed.
What Causes COVID-19 Dreams and Nightmares?
Researchers have identified factors that might make a person more likely to report COVID nightmares or dreams:
- COVID-19 infection: Although dreams and nightmares appear to have increased across the board during the pandemic, their frequency increased even more in people who contracted COVID-19. Experts suspect that people who had COVID-19 may have more nightmares due to trauma, anxiety, or insomnia.
- Traumatic experience: People who have experienced trauma tend to have more dreams that are upsetting or related to their trauma. Experts suspect that both contracting COVID-19 and having anxiety related to the pandemic or isolation could be forms of trauma. More dreams may help with processing this trauma.
- Insomnia: Research shows that people experiencing insomnia, a sleep disorder that involves trouble sleeping, have reported remembering more dreams since the start of the pandemic. Past research has also found that insomnia is connected to increased dreaming, though this could be the result of related psychiatric issues.
- Psychiatric problems: Some studies suggest people experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, or depression have been reporting an increase in dreams and nightmares since the start of the pandemic. However, research has returned conflicting results, perhaps because these disorders often overlap.
- Younger age: Studies show that the younger a person is, the more dreams and nightmares they are likely to report since the COVID-19 pandemic began, with reported dreams leveling off around an age of 65 years old. This difference could be unrelated to the pandemic, and just a result of changes in dream recall during aging.
- Location: Where a person lives has been found to impact their dream frequency since COVID-19 began. For example, a study found people in Finland reported the most dreams, and those in the Jilin region of China reported the least. Cultural differences, COVID-19 infection rates, and lockdown rules may cause these differences.
- Gender: One survey found that people who identify as women are more likely to have had more dreams since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. This finding could be due to differences in gender unrelated to the pandemic or could suggest women’s sleep and mental health were more affected by COVID-19.
- Sleep-related disorders: People who show symptoms of sleep disorders, like trouble sleeping, talking during sleep, or REM sleep behavior disorder, have been found to report more dreams since the start of the pandemic. This may be because their sleep is more likely to be disrupted, waking them, which leads to remembering more dreams.
How COVID-19 Is Changing Our Dreams
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, people across the world have reported experiencing a greater number of dreams and nightmares. Research studies have found that these COVID dreams often involve feeling helpless, anxious, confined, or separated from others. Dreams centered around war, disaster, sickness, death, or the apocalypse were also common.
Experts have identified multiple factors that can help us understand how the COVID-19 pandemic prompted these effects on dreams and nightmares.
COVID-19 Stress and Sleep
One way the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have impacted many people’s sleep and dreams is by causing them more stress. Health worries, virtual schooling, money problems, and isolation impacted many people, leading to stress-related feelings of overwhelm, anxiety, sadness, and anger.
Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, which releases stress-related hormones. Cortisol, adrenaline, and other hormones prompt alertness, leading to sleep loss and insomnia, which can also influence how we dream. Insomnia can also activate the stress response.
Those with insomnia report having experienced more frequent nightmares, likely due to traumatic experiences. A person experiencing stress and insomnia in the wake of COVID-19 may find themselves in a difficult cycle, where stress worsens insomnia, then the insomnia increases stress even more, further worsening their sleep.
COVID-19 and Mental Health Issues
Research suggests that contracting COVID-19 may impact mental health issues in ways that affect sleep. Studies have shown that people who’ve had COVID-19 report more symptoms of PTSD, depression, and anxiety than those who hadn’t had the virus. People who had COVID-19 also reported a greater number of nightmares.
Although catching the COVID-19 virus is associated with more mental health issues, the relationship between the two is likely more complex than simple cause and effect. While the COVID-19 pandemic has adversely affected mental health, people with mental health disorders are also more likely to contract the virus.
For example, one study found that 18% of people with COVID-19 were diagnosed with a mental health disorder, such as anxiety or depression, within three months of their COVID-19 diagnosis. Also, people who had been diagnosed with a mental disorder within a year before getting COVID-19 were 65% more likely to contract the virus.
Circadian Rhythm Changes
Circadian rhythm changes may have contributed to sleeplessness and nightmares during the COVID-19 pandemic. Circadian rhythms are bodily changes that happen across each 24-hour period. The times at which a person is exposed to light and darkness greatly influences their circadian rhythms, including when they are awake or asleep.
For many people, early stages of the pandemic involved spending more time social distancing by staying indoors, working from home, or participating in virtual school. More time indoors may have resulted in less exposure to sunlight, which could disrupt circadian rhythms and throw off sleep schedules.
Early stages of the pandemic may have also prompted people to spend more time using tablets, computers, and other screens while working from home and trying to stay connected to friends and family. These devices give off blue light, which can suppress a sleep-promoting hormone called melatonin, making sleeping difficult.
In addition to staying indoors for longer periods of time and spending more time on blue light-emitting screens, many people began staying up later at night in the early pandemic, which can also delay melatonin production.
How Can COVID Nightmares Be Prevented?
If stress from the COVID-19 pandemic is causing a person’s nightmares, finding ways to reduce stress may help. For some, continued COVID-related stress stems from financial issues, job changes, or the death of a friend or family member.
Addressing these issues with stress-reducing relaxation techniques and improved sleep habits may help improve sleep overall. Similarly, steps can be taken to help regulate a person’s circadian rhythms, if they have become misaligned due to personal habit changes associated with the pandemic.
Tips for Avoiding COVID Nightmares
Practice these techniques to reduce stress and align your circadian rhythm. These tips may help calm the body’s stress response, potentially slow your heart rate and blood pressure, and promote relaxation.
- Exercise regularly: Regular exercise can help you fall asleep more quickly and experience more deep sleep, so you can wake up rested. If you’ve gotten into the habit of a later bedtime, exercising in the morning or early afternoon may help you begin going to sleep and waking up earlier.
- Limit caffeine and alcohol: Limit caffeine and alcohol consumption, and avoid them altogether in the hours before going to bed. These substances may interfere with sleep.
- Use relaxation techniques: Meditation, music, yoga, and deep breathing exercises may help calm your body’s stress response.
- Take a break: If your body tells you it needs a break from an activity you’re engaging in, it’s time to slow down. Practice listening to your body.
- Make time for yourself: Make time for hobbies or activities you enjoy to further relieve stress.
- Keep a consistent sleep schedule: Maintain a consistent sleep schedule with the same bedtime every night and wake time every morning, even on the weekends and when on vacation.
- Limit use of devices: Keep smartphones, tablets, TVs, computers, and other screens out of the bedroom. Avoiding digital device screens in the hours before bed can reduce blue light exposure that may interfere with sleep.
- Set up your bedroom for sleep: Consider your sleep environment. Keep your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet. Use curtains, eye masks, or earplugs to block out disruptive light or sound.
When to See a Doctor
See a doctor if nightmares make it difficult for you to get good sleep, interfere with your daytime activities, or occur more than once a week.
While nightmares have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, other factors can also prompt nightmares. For example, alcohol, medication, and recreational drugs may affect nightmare activity. Tell your doctor if you’ve started any new medications recently, but do not stop taking any prescription drugs without first discussing it with your medical provider.