Not-so-sweet dreams: The science behind coronavirus nightmares

Photo courtesy of Pexels

By Inyeong Kim
BU News Service

He was at his home in Guatemala. He couldn’t remember how he ended up there with his ex-girlfriend. They were talking about whether she was still mad at him. He felt awkward and was going to ask her the reason she was angry. Then suddenly his family showed up too, and the scene started to shift as if it were a horror movie with. He started running away, and then a security guard shot him.

Andrew Cho, a college student in California, woke up and checked his body as if he had really been shot.

Cho is not alone. Since the start of the pandemic, many report having vivid nightmares more frequently. A study by Brandwatch found that that the number of people talking about experiencing nightmares has increased by almost 50% since the beginning of February, and almost 29,000 people say they have had “the worst nightmares of their lives” since the pandemic began. 

Deirdre Barrett, a Harvard dream researcher and an author of The Committee of Sleep, explained that there could be several reasons for increasing nightmares during the pandemic. 

“The combination of a crisis, which makes our dreaming mind more afraid just as it does our waking mind, and this rebound in dream intensity from people catching up on sleep, combine to produce a lot of nightmares right now,” she said. 

Barrett is currently conducting a survey on COVID-19 dreams, and said it is very likely that anxiety from the pandemic could cause bad dreams.

“Any big life change tends to stir up one’s dream life and result in more and more vivid dreams,” Barrett said. “The shelter-at-home situation is a big life change.”

According to Robert Stickgold, a professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of the upcoming book When Brains Dream, this has happened at other points in history as well.

There have been other events like that which caused a surge in thematically-related dreams,” he said. 

There was an increase in vivid, intense dreams after 9/11, according to research from Dr. Ernest Hartmann, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Newton Wellesley Hospital, who said Americans nationwide were affected in traumatic ways.

Stickgold said that pandemic anxiety could also be causing people to wake up more frequently, which could increase nightmares.

“If people are severely traumatized by events, they may develop PTSD-type symptoms,” he said. “This would include higher levels of noradrenaline during sleep, which in turn will both increase awakenings and decrease REM sleep.”

People dream during the stage of sleep called rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep. When they sleep, they go through five stages: starting from light sleep and transitioning to deep sleep. The final stage is REM. This cycle lasts about 90 minutes, and people recall dreams during the late REM stage. 

“So, since you only remember dreams when you wake up, you will remember more dreams if you’re waking up more often,” Stickgold said. “And you will have more vivid, memorable dreams if you wake later in the morning, when your REM sleep is most intense.”

Barrett said with more people at home sleeping more than ever before, they will have more dreams and recall dreams more often.

“One of the biggest variables in the number of dreams, vividness of dreams and length of recalled dreams, is hours of sleep,” Barrett said. “Many who are sleep deprived due to working long hours and/or an intense social life may be catching up on sleep about now.”

Since one sleep cycle takes 90 minutes, workers staying home could have up to five dreams. 

Stickgold said that along with anxiety, social isolation during the pandemic could also impact dreams. 

Our dreams are intensely social events,” Stickgold said. “Almost all dreams involve people other than the dreamer, and involve social interactions. When such interactions are diminished in waking, the brain notices.”

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