The weird effect COVID-19 has on this part of our lives that no one talks about

One of the most common recurring dreams (or nightmare depending on how it goes) people experience is finding themselves back in high school or college. The “back in school” dream isn’t exactly the same for every person, but most of the time it involves discovering that you had completely forgotten to attend a class or finish an assignment. 

Now, though, our high school dreams may also involve face masks, social distancing mistakes, or even coronavirus announcements over the school’s PA system. According to a new study just released by the University of Helsinki, aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic have infiltrated and infected a large proportion of dreams and nightmares this year.

The research team used AI to analyze the dreams of close to 1,000 people. All in all, over half of the “distressing” dreams described by participants revolved around, or at least included references to, the ongoing pandemic and “shared anxiety” about what’s been happening all over the world.

“We were thrilled to observe repeating dream content associations across individuals that reflected the apocalyptic ambiance of COVID-19 lockdown,” says lead study author Dr. Anu-Katriina Pesonen, head of the Sleep & Mind Research Group at the University of Helsinki, in a release. “The results allowed us to speculate that dreaming in extreme circumstances reveal shared visual imagery and memory traces, and in this way, dreams can indicate some form of shared mindscape across individuals.”

During the sixth week of the first COVID-19 lockdown in Finland researchers gathered sleep and stress information from over 4,000 people. Then, 800 participants from that larger group also provided more detailed descriptions of some of their recent dreams and nightmares. 

Of course, all of that data was originally written in Finnish. So, the research team translated everything into lists of English words and then fed those lists to an AI algorithm. That program scanned all the content and looked out for repeating words/phrases/themes. After making these distinctions, the AI created 33 different dreams “clusters,” or themes.

Of those 33 dream clusters, 20 were classified as bad dreams or nightmares – and 55% of those bad dreams featured COVID-19 related content or references. A few of those pandemic-centric themes were social distancing failures, coronavirus infections, PPE (face masks, gloves, etc), and dystopian or apocalyptic scenarios.

For more context, researchers say that one cluster called “disregard of distancing” included word-pairings like crowd-restriction, hug-handshake, handshake-restriction, handshake-distancing, mistake-hug, and distancing-disregard. 

For example, one person may have dreamed that they were back in high school, only this time everyone was wearing face masks. Or another dreamed they went to a concert, but halfway through the dream, they realized no one was following social distancing recommendations. Meanwhile, others experienced apocalyptic coronavirus nightmares.

An apocalyptic COVID-19 dream may sound a bit dramatic to some, but back in March of this year, it was very easy to start wondering if we were all living through the first 20 minutes of a Matt Damon disaster movie. Seven months later, things aren’t quite so uncertain. Still, it makes complete sense that many have had dystopian nightmares over the past few months.

These results emphasize just how much of a psychological toll COVID-19 has extracted. The pandemic has changed seemingly every aspect of day-to-day life, and now we can even add dreams to that list. For many, falling asleep each night has been a welcome respite from the craziness of 2020. The mind is still very much active during sleep, though, and over the past seven months our brains have been processing the reality of the pandemic and all the changes it has brought.

Over half of the study’s participants also said they’ve been sleeping more since the pandemic started than before, while 10% said they’ve been sleeping less. Also, over 25% have been having more nightmares in general. Predictably, most participants have also been feeling more stressed this year, and it’s worth noting that the most stressed study subjects also just happened to report more pandemic-related dreams and nightmares.

“Repeated, intense nightmares may refer to post-traumatic stress,” Dr. Pesonen adds. “The content of dreams is not entirely random, but can be an important key to understanding what is the essence in the experience of stress, trauma, and anxiety.”

The mantra of “we’re all in this together” has been said time and time again this year. Apparently, that even applies to dreams.

“The idea of a shared imagery reflected in dreams is intriguing,” she concludes.

The full study can be found here, published in Frontiers in Psychology.