Insomnia and Vivid Dreams on the Rise With COVID-19 Anxiety

Fears around the pandemic are causing sleep patterns to change and strange dreams to linger in people’s memories

An ongoing study by the Lyon Neuroscience Research Center has found a 35 percent increase in dream recall and a 15 percent increase in negative dreams. Nuca Lomadze / EyeEm via Getty Images

A novelist recalls a trip to a comic store with Ronald Reagan, who swipes his wallet before he can make a purchase; someone else remembers escaping a collapsing building by climbing into a pilotless plane, where he hid in a toilet; and NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly says that one night, she broke into a colleague’s apartment and stole from a hoard of toilet paper—and then she woke up.

As parts of the United States enter their second month of stay-at-home orders, people’s day-to-day lives are becoming paired with an increasingly strange and vivid dreamscape. And a growing group is experiencing insomnia, an inability to fall asleep, as Quartz’s Amanat Khullar reports. Both seem to be symptoms of stress, part of the shared anxiety surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

Common dream scenarios collected by a group of psychoanalysis students in London, called Lockdown Dreams, include the dreamer running away from something or discovering that they’ve done something wrong.

“These are typical anxiety dreams. It’s very pedestrian stuff in that sense, but it’s acted out with such vivid imagination, it becomes very strange,” Jake Roberts, a spokesperson for Lockdown Dreams, tells Donna Ferguson at the Guardian. “Everyone’s quite shocked by the fact that they’re having incredibly vivid dreams. That’s so interesting because our material waking lives have become, in a way, more dull.”

The London-based group is not the only research project tracking the pandemic’s parallel rise in strange dreams. In France, a group at the Lyon Neuroscience Research Center began a study on dreams and dream recall in March, National Geographic’s Rebecca Renner reports. And Bay Area resident Erin Gravley and her sister have begun a website called “i dream of covid” that asks visitors to share their recent dreams.

“One of the earliest patterns that I noticed was people associating hugging with danger or menace,” Gravley tells NPR. “So there are a couple dreams where the dreamers described that someone wanted to hug them, and it made them very frightened, even to the point where they would yell, like, you're hurting me; you're going to kill me.”

Another growing theme, Gravley says, relates to anxiety around going to restaurants.

The Lyon Neuroscience Research Center study has found a 35 percent increase in dream recall and a 15 percent increase in negative dreams. For people not on the front lines of healthcare and emergency response, fears of the novel coronavirus are projected onto threats like zombies, bugs, and shadowy figures, which represent the pandemic metaphorically, per National Geographic.

Dreams tend to occur during the rapid eye movement, or REM, phase of sleep. Anxiety and low activity during the day can make it harder to get a good night’s sleep, and frequently waking up during the night can increase the likelihood that dreams are remembered the next day.

“We normally use REM sleep and dreams to handle intense emotions, particularly negative emotions,” Boston University School of Medicine neurologist Patrick McNamara tells National Geographic. “Obviously, this pandemic is producing a lot of stress and anxiety.”

Speaking to the Guardian, Roberts explains that the new, slower pace of people’s daily lives may also increase their ability to remember dreams the next morning. But beyond causing vivid dreams, anxiety can also prevent a person from falling asleep at all.

“This may be due to the physiological arousal of the 'fight or flight' system that accompanies anxiety that is in opposition with the 'rest and digest' system needed to sleep,” Mississippi State University psychologist Courtney Bolstad tells Quartz. “This arousal may also cause difficulty returning to sleep in the middle of the night.”

As National Geographic reports, as some people are doing less each day, their dreaming minds are digging deeper into their memories to come up with information to process. Yet healthcare professionals are reporting vivid nightmares, per Quartz. Many research groups are comparing the pandemic’s effect on dreams with other disasters, like the 9/11 terrorist attack and the earthquake that affected L’Aquila, Italy, in 2009.

For those who find their vivid dreams unsettling, the good news is that the phenomenon will probably fade with time.

“In general, humans have an amazing capacity to become accustomed to any situation,” Roberts tells the Guardian. “So at least tentatively, we could say that this incredibly vivid dreaming might start to wane after a while as we get used to this situation.”

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