According to a study published in the Journal of Sleep Research, the COVID-19 pandemic may have changed the way we dream by influencing the content of our nightmares. The researchers found that pandemic-related stress was associated with a higher likelihood of having nightmares revolving around specific themes like separation from loved ones, confinement, war, and apocalypse scenarios.
Study authors Kathryn E. R. Kennedy and her team describe how spending more time at home during the lockdowns can potentially disrupt the circadian rhythm — the body’s internal clock that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. An absence of the typical social and daylight cues that people experience in regular times, combined with increased time spent in front of blue-light-emitting screens at home may have altered this sleep clock.
Sleep researchers have also noted increased reports of nightmares during the pandemic. This is not surprising, given the evidence of elevated stress levels around the globe and the crucial link between stress and sleep.
“When the pandemic hit, I found myself having countless conversations with friends and family about changes to their sleep and dreams,” said Kennedy, a graduate student at the University of Arizona. “There were numerous reports of intense, vivid dreams and nightmares coming from those who hadn’t historically experienced them and I wanted to see whether this was occurring in the wider community. Colleagues in Europe were reporting a similar phenomena, so we chose to conduct a nationwide survey on the topic.”
The researchers analyzed data from the Coronavirus and Impact on Dreams (CoVID) study, which involved an online survey that was distributed among 419 Americans between June and November of 2020. The respondents were asked several questions regarding the extent that they felt that COVID-19 has increased their stress levels or affected their sleep. They were also shown a list of themes and asked whether they had experienced any nightmares that related to these themes during the pandemic (e.g., being chased, claustrophobia, separation from loved ones). Respondents additionally completed measures of anxiety, depression, and the Mannheim Dreams questionnaire.
In line with the literature, the results revealed an overall increase in stress and sleep disturbances during the pandemic — 86% of respondents said they experienced an increase in general stress, 84% felt an increase in stress about family, and 68% felt an increase in stress related to media coverage of the pandemic. With regards to sleep, 61% said their sleep has worsened during the pandemic, 55% said they were waking up more frequently in the night, and 44% said they were struggling to fall asleep since the quarantine.
Interestingly, stress appeared to influence the content of respondents’ nightmares, with different sources of stress being linked to specific nightmare themes. After controlling for demographic covariates, respondents who reported greater general pandemic-related stress were more likely to report nightmares centering around helplessness, anxiety, war, separation from loved ones, totalitarianism, sickness, and apocalypse scenarios. Those with greater pandemic-related stress about family were more likely to experience nightmares about all of these themes except sickness and were additionally more likely to experience dreams about confinement, oppression, failure, and death. Increased stress induced by media coverage of the pandemic was not linked to an increase in any specific nightmare theme.
“Last year’s events had a profound influence on many people’s sleep and dreams, but there was no ‘one size fits all’ response. Some people experienced better sleep, while others found their sleep worsened,” Kennedy told PsyPost.
“Our study showed those who were more stressed about COVID-19 and experiencing worse sleep were more likely to be experiencing nightmares with themes of confinement, sickness, death, anxiety, war, apocalypse, and/or totalitarianism. There’s good evidence showing that sleep is a time for us to make sense of our daytime experiences to help us regulate our emotions. Working from home, dealing with job or financial losses, and a public health crisis can all manifest in our dream themes at night.”
The results suggest that stress during the pandemic has evoked similar nightmare themes among people around the world. “Although the COVID-19 pandemic experience has been unique for each individual in the United States, the sleep disturbances and nightmare themes reported in this study are similar to what has been observed in other countries,” Kennedy and her colleagues observe. “This provides further insight into the causes of negatively toned dreams during a global health crisis, as well as perhaps some of the most common fear responses, despite sociopolitical differences in various parts of the world.”
Still, Kennedy and her team propose that the sociopolitical climate in the U.S. during this time may have elicited uncertainty about the future, which might explain the increased nightmares about totalitarianism, war, and helplessness. They say that future studies will be needed to further explore the psychological processes connecting stress, nightmares, and sleep disturbances.
“2020 was an intense year in the United States on multiple fronts. As well as COVID-19, political unrest and the presidential election also may have contributed to anxiety (and thus nightmares) for many individuals,” Kennedy explained. “Because of this, it’s difficult to tease apart which nightmares were specifically brought about by the pandemic, and which were dictated by other things.”
“It’s also tricky to know how accurate these reports were without existing data on these individuals and their dream/nightmare behavior prior to the pandemic. More long-term studies of individuals and their dreams throughout life and – importantly – periods of major change would help us gain a better understanding of how dreams and nightmares manifest in response to different life experiences.”
“We know that sleep is an important time for the brain to make sense of things, setting us up to better handle stressful situations,” Kennedy added. “The more we prioritize sleep as a key component of total mind and body health, the better we might be able to handle the tail-end of this pandemic, and any future obstacles that arise. One of the big changes that many people experienced during quarantine ditching the morning alarm and sleeping in a little later. Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep (the time when most of these dreams and nightmares occur) tends to be more intense the closer we get to the morning. If we’re sleeping in as late as we need without a morning alarm and thus having more dreams, perhaps there’s some benefit in that.”
The study, “Nightmare content during the COVID-19 pandemic: Influence of COVID-related stress and sleep disruption in the United States”, was authored by Kathryn E. R. Kennedy, Célyne H. Bastien, Perrine M. Ruby, William D. S. Killgore, Chloe C. A. Wills, and Michael A. Grandner.