Humans have long been captivated by the interpretation of dreams. In Greek mythology a whole family of gods ruled over sleep. And, philosophers as far back as Aristotle wrote in depth about what our dreams could mean. Now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has upheaved the world in a matter of weeks, lots of people are having more vivid dreams than usual. Do a quick Twitter search for “weird dreams” and you’ll find a treasure trove of dream recollections, ranging from the literal to the abstract. There’s even an account called @IDreamofCOVID19 dedicated to retweeting the most interesting ones.
If you’ve been dreaming lately about illness, natural disasters, financial crises, or social isolation, you’re not alone. You just might be one of the millions having coronavirus-related anxiety dreams, according to Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D., a dream researcher and psychologist who teaches at Harvard Medical School. A new survey-based study in Frontiers of Psychology reported a 26% increase in nightmares since the beginning of the pandemic. Here’s what it all means.
Why You Dream
As you sleep, your brain cycles through multiple stages of brain activity. The first three stages of sleep are called non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) sleep, and they progress from light sleep (Stage 1) to deeper sleep (Stage 3) as your body relaxes. In the final stage you experience rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which occurs when your thalamus (the part of the brain that relays sensory information) kicks into high gear. This is when most of your dreaming occurs. You typically spend about two hours dreaming each night, even if you don’t remember those dreams in the morning.
Experts still don’t know exactly why we dream, but there’s an undeniable connection between dreams and the real-life things we’re dealing with. “I like to say that dreams are just thinking in a very different brain state,” says Barrett. “We continue to think and worry about our fears, our hopes and aspirations, and our emotional and interpersonal life.” The difference is that our typical environment (the world around us) isn’t present in our dreams. Think of your sleeping mind like a blank state for your thoughts to play around in.
Interpreting Vivid Dreams
Dreams don’t always represent reality (so don’t fret if you’ve been having a recurring dream about setting your house on fire). But your dreams can tell you a lot about what’s going on in your subconscious mind, the part of your brain that you’re not immediately aware of. “The things that are likeliest to show up in our dreams are big life events,” Barrett explains, especially “if they’re important, or anything that’s incredibly repetitive.” Think: Sheltering in place. Social distancing. Face mask wearing. Repeat.
Barrett started collecting survey responses in March 2020 (and she’s still collecting them), to learn how people’s dreams are reflecting the current state of our world. “For the general public, the dreams are much more anxious than average,” she says. Some of those dreams are literal – for instance, maybe you dream that a family member has COVID-19–but some are more imaginative. “One woman noticed that she had blue stripes on her stomach,” Barrett says. “And in the dream, she remembered that that was the first sign of COVID-19.” Her brain was taking a bit of creative license, but the overall premise was based in reality.
And get this: If you’ve experienced a life-altering medical diagnosis, you might see some parallels between your current pandemic dreams and dreams related to your condition. Linda Halvorson, 67, from Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, tells HealthCentral she has recently been dreaming about running and hiding—without the wheelchair she now uses for her multiple sclerosis. “I assumed it was the stress of all this,” she says.
Barrett explains that it’s not uncommon for people to dream about their lives before they had physical limitations. “Some people really love being back in their old body,” she explains. Others find these types of dreams upsetting to wake up from. Either way, they represent an emotional experience that has left a lasting impact on you.
Changing the Narrative
Anxiety dreams are no fun, especially if they’re disrupting your peace of mind. But by taking a closer look at your dreams, you can begin to learn how to change them.
Start a sleep journal. “I encourage people to record their dreams and do a little informal dream interpretation,” Barrett says. You may notice some recurring themes, which could indicate a problem you’re working through in real life. For clues and insight, answer these questions, says Barrett: “What else in your history is this interacting with? What aspect of the pandemic is most stressful for you?”
Visualize what you want to dream about. You can’t put a mandate on what you’ll dream about, but you can influence where your mind goes. Before you fall asleep “tell yourself, ‘I want to dream something like this tonight,’” Barrett says. It could be a dream about a specific person, a favorite place or memory, or a recurring positive dream. “It’s both a pleasant way to fall asleep, but also it tends to get the attention of your dreaming mind,” Barrett explains. “And that often influences your dreams toward more positive ones.”
- Practice optimism. Next time you have a stressful day and are worried about having a nightmare, focus your energy on something positive. The coronavirus pandemic may be invading our waking lives, but it doesn’t have to ruin our dreams as well. Try using a meditation app like Headspace or Calm to wind down before you go to bed. With practice, you can quiet your mind and hopefully enjoy a more restful night of sleep.