Picture this: You’re out on a routine trip for groceries when you’re suddenly surrounded on all sides by a large group of people. You feel uncomfortable as they begin to crowd around you. Then, someone coughs nearby and you feel a strong fear of becoming ill.

If you’ve noticed that you’ve been having particularly intense dreams during the COVID-19 pandemic, you’re not alone. Researchers around the world have noted an uptick in disrupted sleep and stranger, more vivid dreams during the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had not only a physical impact on many people but also a psychological impact. It touches so many parts of our lives, and we often deal with various pandemic-related stresses every day.

Because of this, it’s not unusual for some of this to seep into our dreams. Here we discuss how and why COVID-19 may be affecting our dreams, as well as go over some tips for better sleep.

Being sure to get good sleep is important for many aspects of our overall health. Sleep deprivation or disrupted sleep can have several adverse effects. It’s known that the pandemic has negatively impacted our sleep as well.

One 2020 study assessed sleep characteristics in 5,525 survey respondents. It found that after the pandemic began, the percentage of people reporting clinically significant sleep difficulties increased from 36 percent to 50.5 percent.

Changes in dreams have also been reported — particularly an increase in vivid, often disturbing nightmares.

Nightmares are a type of dream that often involve threats to our security. Some common nightmare themes involve falling or being chased.

You may now be wondering what exactly is going on. Let’s take some time to try to break this down.

Stress can play a big role

The pandemic has altered many aspects of our lives in a relatively short period of time. This can cause increased stress in our daily lives.

For example, common pandemic-related stressors include concerns about:

  • you or your loved ones becoming ill or dying from COVID-19
  • isolation from family and friends during periods of lockdown
  • dramatic changes to daily activities in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19
  • maintaining your job or being unemployed
  • uncertainty over individual finances or the economy
  • access to healthcare or medications
  • disruptions to school
  • availability of child care
  • cancellation of trips or events
  • media coverage of the pandemic

One study published in November 2020 asked 4,275 respondents about their sleep. It found that people reporting the highest increases in perceived stress also:

  • took longer to fall asleep
  • slept for shorter periods
  • had more nightmares

A September 2020 study of 3,031 survey respondents found that people who were more directly affected by COVID-19 — such as those who had had a loved one get sick or die — were more negatively impacted by dreams. They experienced:

  • more pandemic-related dreams in general
  • more nightmares
  • increased memories of their dreams upon waking

Increases in nightmares during or following periods of intense stress or crisis isn’t a new theory. For example, it’s been documented previously in war veterans and following 9/11.

The pandemic affects many areas of our lives

Changes in dreams don’t have to be directly related to stress. Instead, they could be associated with the simple fact that the pandemic affects so many aspects of our daily lives. Because of this, it’s often at the top of our mind.

For example, the survey study mentioned above also found that even people reporting unchanged or lower stress levels since the start of the pandemic had dreams that were pandemic-related roughly half of the time.

So, it appears that the pandemic can influence our dreams regardless of whether we’re feeling increased levels of stress.

What happens in our dreams can reflect the things we experience while we’re awake. For example, you may find that some of your dreams include things you’ve experienced and felt in your waking hours.

This is because sleep serves as an important way to store newly acquired memories. As you sleep, areas of your brain involved in learning are activated, which can tie into the images you see in your dreams.

For months, we’ve had COVID-related precautions or restrictions as a prominent part of our daily lives. As such, it’s not surprising that COVID-19 has found its way into our dreams.

COVID-19 dreams may help us process the pandemic

COVID-19 dreams might be your brain’s way of working out pandemic-related stresses or processing changes that have occurred due to the pandemic.

A study of 19 college students, published in September 2020, found that food imagery in dreams was more common during the pandemic. The researchers proposed that this increase may be due to concerns at the time over access to food or food hoarding.

An increase in head-related imagery was also seen. Here, the researchers note that dream imagery often reflects a waking day illness or condition. They suggest an increase in head imagery may be due to COVID-related factors like coughing or wearing a mask.

While we’ve discussed that some dreams can be specifically linked to COVID-19, it’s also possible to experience other, potentially more abstract dreams during the pandemic.

One study, published in September 2020, found that out of 796 reported dreams, only 159 (about 20 percent) had direct references to COVID-19.

Abstract dreams were also reported, such as: “There was the eruption of Vesuvius. Many people ran towards a kind of bunker. Instead, my family proceeded to the volcano.”

It can be hard to see exactly how these types of dreams fit into the context of your daily life. At the end of the day, the specifics of the dream don’t always matter. What’s important is how they make you feel.

Many pandemic dreams are negative

Generally speaking, pandemic dreams are associated with more negative dream emotions. These can include things like fear, anger, and sadness.

One study, published in May 2021, investigated dreams during the COVID-19 lockdown in Italy. It found that during this time, the three most commonly reported emotions were fear, surprise, and sadness.

Another September 2020 study compared dreams reported during the pandemic to a database of dreams described before the pandemic. A large jump in dreams containing negative emotions was seen during the pandemic, especially in females.

A third study, published in March 2021, analyzed the dreams of 71 college students during a COVID-19 lockdown. It found that, compared to pre-pandemic dreams, female students had more nightmares and more aggressive interactions in their dreams.

Negative dreams may go on to impact your waking life. A pre-pandemic study from 2015 found that, compared to a control group, people with frequent nightmares experienced more concerns during their waking hours, including increased daytime sleepiness and reduced evening relaxation.

Positive pandemic dreams happen, too

It’s important to note that it’s not all doom and gloom when it comes to pandemic dreams. Positive emotions have been recorded in pandemic dreams as well, though they’re less common.

One 2020 study mentioned above noted that positive emotions in dreams during the pandemic did increase over those in the pre-pandemic database. However, these increases were very slight compared to the increase in negative emotions.

Another 2020 study mentioned earlier investigated 247 pandemic-related dreams and recorded 4 reports of positive dreams. These typically involved themes of persistence, not giving up, and fun times spent with family.

If you’ve been having COVID nightmares, you may be wondering how you can avoid or prevent them. You can try several methods at home, most of which involve reducing stress and promoting a good night’s sleep.

Find ways to lower stress

If you feel as if stress is a significant factor in your nightmares, try to find ways to reduce it. It’s possible that you may need to try several stress relief measures before you find some that are effective. Examples of things to consider are:

Additionally, while staying informed about current events is important, constantly refreshing social media or watching the news can raise stress levels. If this applies to you, try to disconnect for a bit and do something relaxing instead.

Set up a bedtime routine

Developing a bedtime routine can help you to wind down and relax as it gets later. Some ways to do this include:

Get exercise

Regular exercise is good for your overall health. It can also lift your mood and help you feel tired in the evenings. A good general goal for exercise is to aim for 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week.

However, it’s important to be aware of the time of day that you’re getting this exercise. Try to avoid exercising in the few hours before your bedtime, as it could interfere with getting to sleep.

Care for your body

In addition to the things that we’ve discussed above, it’s important to care for your body in other ways as well. These include:

Connect with other people

Connecting with others is a vital way to find support and to support others. When possible, try to spend time with family and friends.

Additionally, if you’re feeling very stressed or are troubled by your COVID-19 nightmares, try to let others close to you know what you’re feeling and experiencing. Sometimes it helps to simply have another person listen.

It’s also important to know when it may be a good idea to speak with a mental health professional. Some examples include when you have:

  • very frequent nightmares
  • disrupted sleep or nightmares that significantly impact your daily life
  • symptoms consistent with a mental health disorder, such as anxiety or depression

We all have dreams, even if we don’t remember them when we wake up. In fact, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, we spend about 2 hours each night dreaming.

Dreams can happen in any of the stages of sleep, but they’re most often associated with rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. In REM sleep, your brain activity, breathing, and heart rate are closer to waking levels.

Additionally, dreams in REM sleep tend to be more detailed and stranger, while those in non-REM sleep are shorter. You’re also more likely to remember dreams that happen in REM sleep.

Exactly why we dream still isn’t clear. However, several roles for dreams have been proposed. For example, dreams may help us to:

  • consolidate and store our memories
  • process our emotions about things that are going on in our lives
  • prepare us to respond to threatening situations
  • promote our creativity

It’s true that COVID-19 has been impacting the way that we dream. During the pandemic, people have reported recalling an increased amount of vivid, often distressing dreams.

The pandemic has touched so many parts of our lives and increased stress for many of us. It’s not surprising that it’s affected our dreams as well.

Pandemic dreams may be our brain’s way of processing the events and emotions we’ve experienced in our waking hours.

You can try to prevent COVID-19 nightmares by reducing stress levels and setting up a bedtime routine. If you find that you have frequent nightmares that interfere with your daily life, reach out to a mental health professional.