man sleeping in bed

Pandemic Dreams: They’re Strange, They’re Vivid, And They’re Very Common

I’m just minding my own business, walking my dog, Arya. Out of nowhere, another dog comes running at us and bites Arya’s ear off. I panic and immediately check the wound, only to find there’s no blood or really any damage at all. What’s more, no one seems the least bit concerned that this rogue dog is running around ripping other dogs’ ears off.

Thankfully, this was a part of a dream (otherwise, I’d have to seriously check into why my dog seems to have no blood in her body). Still, strange, vivid dreams like this have been common for me recently during the coronavirus pandemic.

Turns out, I’m not alone. A lot of people have been experiencing unusual dreams recently — and it seems to have a lot to do with the pandemic. In fact, this phenomenon is so common that it’s sparked a Twitter hashtag: #PandemicDreams.

So, what gives? Why the sudden spike in incredibly vivid dreams — and what does it all mean?

Today, dreams are believed to be a connection to our unconscious mind. They may reveal hidden emotions, help in problem-solving or memory-formation, or simply be a compilation of random brain activation.

Source: American Sleep Association

The meaning behind dreams has always been a bit murky, though it’s safe to say that they’re probably connected to our emotional states in some way or another. And during a pandemic, well, emotions are definitely running high.

Here’s a look at the science behind pandemic dreams and what on earth is going on with our minds at night.

Stress And 3 a.m. Bedtimes: A Recipe For Pandemic Dreams (And Nightmares)

After my first few unusual dreams, I decided to do what anyone would do — Google it. While I wasn’t exactly shocked that I was not alone, I was surprised how much research is being done about pandemic dreams.

At least five research teams at institutions around the world are studying pandemic dreams thanks to COVID-19. Plus, this phenomenon is not new as dreams were also reported to be more intense and memorable after the 9/11 attacks.

So far, researchers have narrowed the root of pandemic dreams down to two factors — stress, and, ultimately, disrupted sleep patterns.

Stress And Dreaming

Intense emotions are no stranger to most of us during the coronavirus pandemic. Whether you’ve experienced job uncertainty, feelings of isolation, or added pressures like homeschooling or caring for a loved one, stress is rampant right now. Plus, many are preoccupied with the most obvious concern — contracting COVID-19.

Apparently, our minds use dreaming to handle intense emotions, especially those that are negative. And increased anxiety throughout the day (say from watching the news packed with grim reports or trying to handle work-from-home and homeschooling all at once) can lead to more negative content in dreams — which may explain why my poor dog had to lose her ear.

Sleep Patterns And Dreaming

Stress and anxiety can lead to more negative or vivid dreams, but the more pressing question is — why is everyone suddenly remembering them?

Basically, it comes down to one thing: sleep patterns. When your sleeping routine becomes disrupted or altered, it can make you remember more of your dreams after you wake up.

Whether or not you’re aware of it, everyone wakes up several times a night. This is completely normal, and it happens around the end of each 90-minute sleep cycle. Without these moments of wakefulness, you actually wouldn’t remember your dreams at all.

After about 5 minutes of being awake, your brain starts encoding memory. If you’re feeling more anxious, you’re more likely to stay awake long enough to form those memories and remember your dreams in the morning.

On top of anxiety, sleep patterns are being disrupted all over the place right now. Whether you’re working from home and can stay up until midnight (or 3 a.m.) or you’ve formed a new habit of napping throughout the day, your routine is probably a little jolted right now — which may increase your tendency to remember your dreams.

Finally, a lack of activity can decrease sleep quality, which is associated with your ability to remember your dreams. And right now, we’re all pretty limited in what we’re able to do to pass the time, and everyone’s activity levels have likely taken a bit of a hit.

While stress, changes in routine, and lack of activity are major players for restlessness, there are other possible causes, such as:

  • More screen time, including virtual game nights or scrolling through social media
  • Bingeing your favorite TV show or watching the news right before bed
  • Drinking alcohol more often

Warding Off Negative Dreams — And Getting A Good Night’s Sleep

Peace of mind can lead to more peaceful dreams, where you feel content with what’s going on in your dreams. On the other hand, anxiety can lead to dreams that are upsetting or frightening. Fortunately, there are ways to combat this.

Start with trying to address your anxiety. This might include:

  • Reframing your time at home to be positive by focusing on tasks you’ve put off until now or a new hobby
  • Trying to maintain a relatively steady routine
  • Turning off the news every once in a while
  • Journaling your thoughts and reflections
  • Using telehealth to talk to a mental health professional

It’s also important to get a good night’s sleep as often as possible, especially right now. Try to incorporate some activity into your day, avoid screen time right before bed, and limit your use of alcohol and nicotine.

Pandemic dreams are certainly a strange side effect of the coronavirus pandemic, but they’re manageable. If nothing else, you can keep a dream journal next to your bed — maybe you’ll come up with the next hit movie based on one of your strangest pandemic dreams yet.

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