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Why You're Having Weird Dreams During Coronavirus Outbreak

Vivid nightly visions may be related to stress, new sleep patterns and maybe even your age

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David Salkeld needs sleep. The 54-year-old registered nurse works up to 60 hours a week in a North Carolina emergency room, dubbed Camp COVID by the staff. But when the exhausted Salkeld falls asleep after a grueling day, he often endures an unsettling dream. At his boyhood home, he opens a garage door and sees the ghosts of two tiny girls. They are his deceased daughters, though Salkeld and his wife don't have daughters (they have two sons). He cries when he sees them. The girls are in color, but Salkeld is in black and white. He tries to touch them, but they raise their hands and say that he can't. Eventually they disappear. “I start to cry harder because I don't know if I will ever see them again,” he says.

Salkeld attributes the dreams to work-related stress. But even if you're not on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, you may be experiencing and remembering distressing dreams.

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In a survey commissioned by Kelly Bulkeley, director of the Sleep and Dream Database, nearly 30 percent of respondents said they had experienced an increase in dream recall. More than 2,500 respondents have shared details of more than 6,000 pandemic dreams on a survey site launched by Deidre Barrett, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University. A group of London psychoanalytic theory students are collecting dream recaps on, and two Bay Area sisters are doing the same on, where nearly 2,600 dream descriptions have been posted not just by Americans, but from people in countries such Israel, Italy, Pakistan and Brazil.

So yes, we're all dreaming more. But why? And does age affect your dreams?

Coping with stress

The most obvious cause of disturbing dreams is pandemic-related anxiety. Humans process fear-related experiences through REM sleep and dreams, and invisible threats such as COVID-19 can make dreams more bizarre, says Patrick McNamara, a professor of psychology at Northcentral University and the author of The Neuroscience of Sleep and Dreams.

"We don't know for sure why we use metaphors and bizarre images, but the general consensus is that it puts some parameters around ill-defined threats,” he says. In the dreams that Barrett is collecting on the Harvard site, bugs are a common metaphor: People report dreams involving swarms of insects such as cockroaches and grasshoppers. Disasters such as tornadoes and earthquakes are another frequent symbol. “We symbolize the threat in our dreams and try to work with it and integrate it into our conceptual system,” McNamara says.

Stress may affect dreams even if you don't feel stressed. Lynne Golodner, owner and chief creative officer for Your People LLC, a marketing and public relations firm in suburban Detroit, recently dreamt that she was stuck in Iran and couldn't reach her children. The coronavirus dream themes seem obvious — lack of control, feeling trapped — yet Golodner says she's anxiety-free. “I like the stay-at-home mandate and the simplicity it brings,” she says.

But just like the virus itself, stress is a lurking, undetectable threat. We experience not just individual stress, but societal stress, and we underestimate the effects of bad economic news and masked grocery store clerks on our psyches.

"The social-cultural stress is kind of permeating the air,” says Jade Wu, a sleep psychologist and host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast. “It's almost contagious. So even if we haven't lost our jobs or had a loved one contract coronavirus, we're still tapping into this heightened level of stress.”

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New sleep patterns

One upside of the pandemic: Some people are sleeping more. Before stay-at-home orders were enacted in New York City, residential electricity use would usually increase around 6 a.m., peak at 7:30 a.m., then decline. But according to Columbia University's Earth Institute, once schools were closed and people started working at home, the morning power peak was around 9 a.m., which is more like a weekend.

More sleep means more time for dreams. And the period before you awake is when you experience your longest and deepest REM sleep. When you wake up normally, without your buzzing alarm, you experience more of what dream scientists call a REM sleep episode.

"That's where we have the most vivid dreams — in REM sleep,” McNamara says. “If you wake up with an alarm clock you say, ‘OK, I've got to do X, Y and Z, and then I've got to get on the subway’ — you're immediately in your day. But if you don't have any pressing obligations, like on a weekend or during a time like this, you tend to wake up in a REM sleep episode, so the dreams are more prominent, and you start to remember them."

When we don't get enough REM sleep, the brain tries to compensate, and the result can be nightmares. “If we don't get enough REM tonight, then tomorrow night, when we go to sleep, the brain will try to make up for the loss by giving you more earlier in the night,” Wu says. “And when that happens, we're more likely to have intense dreams and nightmares.”

Effects of age and medications

In the study conducted by Bulkeley, respondents age 18-34 were more likely to say they'd had a pandemic-related dream than people ages 55 and older. One reason may be that older people possess wisdom and life experiences that better equip them to manage stressful situations. In an analysis of survey data from Ipsos MORI, a global market research firm, New King's College London researchers determined that pandemic responses in the UK can be divided into three categories: the Accepting, people who are following lockdown measures and losing little sleep over coronavirus; the Suffering, the group most likely to feel anxious and depressed; and the Resisting, those who are least likely to follow lockdown rules. People age 55-75 were most likely to be in the Accepting group.

Older and younger people also dream about different things, McNamara says. With age, our dreams are more likely to be spiritual and reflective. “There's more themes about handing something on to some other character or set of characters,” he says. “And then as you approach death, there's quite a few dreams of being reunited with loved ones. They appear quite healthy and happy and say, ‘Don't be afraid, everything's gonna be fine. You'll be rejoining us.'"

The stages of sleep also change with age. Slow-wave sleep — the deepest type of non-REM sleep — tends to disappear. REM sleep declines as well. “In general, I would say that people dream a little bit less,” Wu says. Other age-related issues that can affect dreams include pain and sleep medications. “Almost every 60-plus patient that I've seen has been on some sort of sleep medication, whether it's on-label or off-label,” she says. This includes products such as ZzzQuil and prescription drugs such as zolpidem (Ambien), both of which can lead to more vivid dreaming.

Beating back nightmares

If you're having persistent nightmares, one option is a technique called Image Rehearsal Therapy, which involves journaling about your dream and rewriting it. McNamara gives the example of a monster that's chasing you in a dream. As you rewrite it, you determine that it's not a monster but an old friend. And he's not trying to hurt you, he's trying to share good news. “You rewrite the dream script so it's no longer scary,” he says. “When you do that on a regular basis for a couple of weeks, it tends to get rid of the nightmares and the disturbing dreams. It's easy-to-do therapy and it's effective."

Other recommendations include:

  • Keep a consistent sleep schedule. “That'll help to stabilize your sleep pattern and set you up for less likelihood of really intense nightmares,” Wu says.

  • Review your medications. Some of them could be causing nightmares. Also, avoid alcohol close to bedtime: It can disrupt sleep and dreaming.

  • Don't go right back to sleep after a nightmare. You're better off getting up and maybe drinking a little water. “Don't worry about losing a little bit of sleep,” says Wu. “If you just roll over and reenter the nightmare, that's going to perpetuate a bad pattern."

  • Plan your dreams. Before you go to sleep, think about what you want to dream about. That not only increases the odds that you'll dream about something good, but you'll also have fewer anxiety dreams, according to Barrett.

  • Get more info. The Sleep Foundation offers advice for sleeping well during the pandemic.

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