In the times of COVID-19, life has gotten crazy. That’s a no-brainer. Masks, no handshakes or hugs, staying-six-feet-apart-at all-times, no haircuts: these have all become a part of our strange reality. There is an invisible force that has seriously altered our waking lives. And as it turns out, life isn’t the only thing that’s gone awry. Our sleeping lives have too. Dreams have gotten crazier and more bizarre. So, what’s to blame?
Why do we dream?
First, let’s briefly talk about dreams. This is a hard subject to write about because, truthfully, little is known about these elusive, strange events. There are many theories about why we dream, but no one knows for sure. Some researchers say dreams have no purpose; others say they are crucial for our mental and emotional health. In one study, researchers woke people just as they were going into REM sleep. Their findings suggested that those who weren’t allowed to dream had more anxiety, depression, weight gain, lack of coordination, and a harder time concentrating.
We do, however, have some conclusive knowledge of dreams.
For example, we know that you can dream at any time throughout sleep, but that the most vivid ones occur during a phase called REM sleep, which stands for rapid eye movement. It is in this stage when your brain is most active. Also, some experts say we dream at least four to six times per night.
We also know dreams are hard to remember. Why is that? Again, researchers don’t know for sure. It could be the case that we are designed to forget our dreams so that we don’t confuse them with real memories of reality.
What do dreams mean?
The most interesting question pertaining to dreams is perhaps the most controversial and ambiguous: what do dreams mean? The famous psychologist Sigmund Freud believed and tried to show that dreams were a way to glimpse into our subconscious minds. He thought they illustrate a person’s unconscious thoughts and desires, which are repressed by society in daily life. This repression manifests itself in dreams of all shapes and forms; every dream, then, has a meaning. The legitimacy of Freud’s theory is, of course, highly disputed. But we aren’t here to get into the nitty-gritty of psychoanalysis. So enough about dreams in general. Let’s get into the relationship between COVID-19 and dreams in our current time.
The effects of COVID-19 on our dreams
More sleep, more dreaming
For starters, America’s time asleep has jumped nearly 20% now that students and the workforce are predominantly working from home. People are waking up later because there is no longer that pesky commute to work, and if you aren’t leaving the house, you may be able to put off that shower till later. In turn, this provides more time to sleep, and subsequently, more time to dream. Interestingly, scientists and dreamers alike have noticed an uptick in vivid dreams, and most peculiarly, the ability to remember such dreams.
Traumatic times of disaster increase dreams
According to a Sleep Standards survey of 1,000 dreamers in the United States, more than 87% of Americans have had unusual dreams since the pandemic began. This isn’t an anomaly; dreams, nightmares, and other sleep disturbances are common in these traumatic times of disaster. The same increase was seen after the 9/11 attacks.
What explains this? Does the anxiety of strange times actually make us dream more? Probably not. Researchers are citing a different cause for all these dreams. As I said, more sleep is definitely playing a role. We are probably witnessing a phenomenon called REM rebound for a number of people. REM rebound is the lengthening and increasing frequency and depth of rapid eye movement sleep which occurs after periods of sleep deprivation. People had been losing sleep from work, and now they are catching up, so dreams are running rampant.
Sleep disruption leads to more memory of dreams
Another important factor to consider: waking up is imperative to remember your dreams. The more you wake up during the night, the more of your dreams you will remember.
During REM sleep you get what is called REM Atonia. REM Atonia is a protective measure where you lose muscle tone so that you don’t act out your dream. Because of this relaxation of muscle, you are more susceptible to Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) due to the throat loosening up and therefore being more likely to collapse, blocking your airway. This blockage causes you to wake up, and this episode of wakefulness will increase your memory of dreams. You can read more about OSA here.
More alcohol, more vivid dreams
Interestingly, alcohol can also worsen sleep apnea. It relaxes the throat muscles even more. During this period of COVID quarantine, there has been a lot more alcohol consumption. In fact, alcohol sales are up 55% compared to this time last year. Alcohol actually blocks REM sleep, so the nights you aren’t drinking, prepare for some wild dreams as you rebound into that stage of deep sleep.
Stress leads to more vivid dreams
Working from home can also be stressful due to trying to navigate family life and your job all in the same spot. Stress can actually lead to more vivid dreams. In particular, anxiety is associated with a risk of disturbing and intense nightmares.
You may say I’m a dreamer…
The relationship between this novel coronavirus and intense dreams is an interesting one, but also a complicated one. Dreams can be an incredibly rich source to analyze and interpret in whatever way you feel comfortable. You could even start keeping a dream journal, which, if you want to remember your dreams better, will help with retention. This could be a way to foster stability in these unstable times of COVID. I’ll end on a positive note and say that hopefully this time of intense, weird dreams for everyone will be over shortly, and daily life will be back to where it once was, full of social interaction with the ones we love most. In the words of John Lennon from the Beatles, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us and the world will live as one.”