Coronavirus has created an epidemic of weird dreams

Getty Images / Yves Dean / Contributor

There’s one about exploding cows. In another, Oprah is on a murderous rampage. Some are more banal: securing a Tesco delivery slot; bad haircuts; failed shopping trips for cheese in Paris. It seems that, as well as dominating every news ticker and radio announcement, flooding social media and saturating WhatsApp chats, coronavirus is living in our dreams too. And these dreams? They’re weird.

In recent weeks, Google searches for ‘Covid-19 dreams’ and ‘coronavirus dreams’ have seen considerable spikes. Worldwide searches for ‘nightmares’ are on an upward trajectory too. On the r/dreams subreddit, where people go to discuss their dreams, most posts typically stir a handful of replies. But a recent entry asking other forum members if they’ve been having strange dreams since the lockdown began has clocked over 200 responses.

A Twitter account – @IDreamofCovid19 – is collating tweeted experiences. One reads: “I dreamt Michelle Obama gave me a hug, which would ordinarily be such an nice dream [sic], except that it was set in the present so instead it morphed into a nightmare of my worrying that I gave her coronavirus and vice versa.”

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Among the more straightforward explanations for this phenomenon is the fact that many people, relieved of the need to commute or physically attend classes, are sleeping more – or sleeping in, at the very least. “A lot of it is just watching slightly sleep deprived people catching up on sleep, and that people who are letting themselves sleep a natural amount at night are getting more and more dreams,” says Deirdre Barrett, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of books including The Committee of Sleep and Trauma and Dreams.

This, Barrett explains, is impacting the amount of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep people are getting. In a typical sleep cycle, REM follows a period of deep sleep and is when dreams tend to be most vivid. With more people sleeping for longer periods, and not being woken artificially by alarm clocks, they’re experiencing more complete sleep cycles – and more REM as a result.

However, there’s more to this than lie-ins and bedroom-to-study commutes. It’s not just people getting more than forty winks who could be experiencing vivid dreams. Megan Crawford studies chronic sleep problems at the Strathclyde Sleep Research Unit and says that stress could result in more people recalling their strange dreams as they suffer disrupted sleep and emerge repeatedly from REM sleep throughout the night. “It is a normal response to not sleep in a situation of stress,” she explains, “It’s part of a fight or flight response, as we become anxious and our bodily functions can ramp up in order to fight or [flee].”

Work-related stress, worries about loved ones, or broader existential crises associated with the uncertainty that’s accompanied the coronavirus pandemic are contributing to heightened emotionality. This results in more vivid dream experiences too. There’s no getting away from the fact that lots of the dreams people are having are less than pleasant. Barrett has been asking people to submit accounts of their Covid-related dreams, and her early analysis is a blunt one: “they are way more anxious on average than a normal set of dreams.”

It was one of the respondents to Barrett’s survey that dreamed of exploding cows. Their account describes “huge waves of blood gush[ing] from the back of the trailer” transporting the cattle. “One of the last scenes I remember was that I was outside of the house staring up at it,” the respondent concludes, “knowing that something cataclysmic was going to happen at any second.”

Barrett draws parallels between these dream submissions and accounts from World War II prisoners of war and Kuwaitis left with PTSD after the first Gulf War. The common theme among these records, Barrett says, is trauma. “Trauma tends to cause vivid nightmares about the trauma [experienced] – often more literal a dream than usual, but sometimes vivid metaphors for the trauma,” she explains. The flood of bizarre dreams and nightmares being reported during the pandemic suggests that the invisible threat represented by coronavirus is manifesting as a traumatic response in people’s dreams.

Worst affected, perhaps unsurprisingly, are frontline medical staff. Around ten per cent of the 300 responses Barrett has received so far have come from healthcare workers. These people, Barrett says, “are just having nightmares. You know, really full on nightmares – like you see with a traumatised population.”

Last weekend, Swansea University professor of psychology Mark Blagrove streamed a live dream discussion with a nurse on Facebook. The session was part of Blagrove’s DreamsID project, in which artist and fellow Swansea lecturer Julia Lockheart creates a visual representation of the dreamer’s account. Far from a gimmick, however, Blagrove says this process – that of listening to others’ accounts of their dreams, in particular – could represent a vital response to the pandemic and its associated trauma.

“There’s a famous phrase that there’s nothing more boring than listening to someone’s dream,” he says with a chuckle, “but we have evidence that when people discuss dreams, the one who’s listening becomes more empathic towards the person who’s sharing the dream. They start to understand the emotions and the life circumstances of the other person.” He suggests that, with more people cooped up inside with each other – as well as retreating to chat apps and forums – there’s an increased opportunity for this “dream sharing” to happen. And he believes one of the results could be “a greater level of empathy occurring between people”.

This point feels particularly relevant to the ongoing pandemic. By now, experts are in broad agreement that social distancing measures represent the most effective response. But getting people to adhere to these conditions hasn’t proven easy. One reason for the UK government’s stuttered introduction of the current lockdown was that experts didn’t believe people in Britain would do as they’re told.

The invisibility of the threat makes it difficult to comprehend the real impact of staying home – even as footage from ICU wards shows the results of ignoring public health advice. In short, it takes a considerable empathetic leap. Blagrove sees the combination of lockdown and increased dream recall as the seed of an opportunity to redress declining rates of empathic concern observed throughout the West over the past 40 years – visible in everything from the rise of political isolationism to what’s been termed a ‘narcissism epidemic’.

Harvard’s Deirdre Barrett says there’s no doubt that people will continue to experience Covid-related trauma in their dreams long after the pandemic has subsided. Megan Crawford expects the poor sleep habits and disrupted circadian rhythms developed during lockdown to stretch out beyond the flattened curve too.

But along with Blagrove, they share some hope too: that this strange, fundamentally unsettling period will encourage people to reflect on their relationships with sleep and their dreams. And perhaps even lead them to hear a colleague, friend, or loved one out when greeted with that dreaded opener: “I had the strangest dream last night. Would you like to hear it?”

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