Changes in our dreams can be one of the best clues as to what’s going on in our minds and bodies.
Vivid, strange, and particularly memorable dreams can happen many times in life. For some, they occur during periods of happiness and well-being. For others, vivid dreams are the norm and occur no matter their inner state. For others, still, bizarre and powerful dreams are an indication of mental health struggles or stress.
Vivid dreams are often associated with stress, anxiety, stress, depression, and substance abuse. But they can also specifically be brought on by stressful events or big life changes.
If our experiences in 2020 can be defined by anything, it’s stressful events and life changes. Dealing with the fear, chaos, grief, and economic challenges of a pandemic are undoubtedly stressful. And most of us have had to completely transform our day-to-day lives and find ways to cope with our unrecognizable routines.
Many people have reported experiencing vivid, bizarre dreams this year. And for dream researchers, it isn’t particularly surprising that folks are experiencing COVID-influenced dreams.
Apparently, disaster-impacted dreams are historically the norm.
In 2008, research indicated that people’s dreams were impacted following a huge event: September 11th, 2001. The study found that “Dreams after 9/11 showed a highly significant increase in central image intensity, as well as central image proportion (number of dreams with scorable central images).”
Also, research from 1992 found evidence of disaster-impacted dreams: this time, in response to the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. The study found a significant increase in nightmares in Bay area residents when compared with residents of Tuscon, Arizona (who were not impacted by the earthquake): “Subjects in California had not only more nightmares in general but substantially more nightmares about earthquakes. Over a 3-week period, about 40% of those in the San Francisco Bay area reported one or more nightmares about an earthquake, as compared with only 5% of those in Arizona.”
So, it makes complete sense that our dreams have been influenced by this year’s pandemic.
How COVID-19 affects our dreams
Research has already been done this year to analyze how our nights are being impacted by COVID-19. The Dreaming Journal published a study indicating that those who are the most affected by the stress of the pandemic are also the most likely to be having strong effects on their dreams. The changes noted include more nightmare-like or negative dreams, greater ability to remember dreams, and dreams with pandemic-related content.
Other research has suggested a wide variety of reasons for why COVID-19 would be so significantly changing our dreams and how we experience them.
One potential explanation is the change to our sleep schedules. For some, the pandemic has resulted in sleeping longer and until later in the morning. For others, it’s resulted in less sleep overall and more disrupted sleep. Any one of these changes would almost inevitably impact our dreams to some extent, so they’re likely at least a partial explanation.
Social distancing could be another factor, with such drastic changes to our social routines and many of us experience increased levels of loneliness and social isolation. Stress and fear themselves, regular parts of our 2020 lives, are also clear culprits in this situation. Stress dreams are a well-known phenomenon that a majority of us have likely experienced, even prior to 2020.
What to do about it
The first—and maybe most important—thing to do if you’re experiencing vivid 2020 dreams is to listen to the clues your mind and body are giving you. Some of us might be trying to soldier through, or may even be practicing daytime denial of the stress we’re under. But our sleep habits and dreams don’t lie. So when those patterns shift or change, it’s a big sign to pause and assess how we’re really doing.
We can use our dreams and nightmares to give us information about our inner world so that we can effectively take care of ourselves during this difficult time — and so that we can, hopefully, eventually, have peaceful and restful nights.