An expert decodes why you're having such vivid dreams during coronavirus
At around 6 a.m., I awoke with a jolted start and fast-beating heart. Then, with a keen sense of alertness, I remembered why I was so shaken: I had driven my car off a bridge. Except I have no car, and I don’t drive. I had been dreaming.
A few days later, my best friend called to tell me she’d been having similar, vivid dreams that she remembered with great detail upon waking. She, too, reported a feeling of helplessness in her slumber, with nonsensical events happening in her dreams that she had no control over. To her, they sometimes felt more like nightmares. Our recent similarities in dream patterns are no coincidence. As the vast majority of us grapple with multiple weeks spent quarantining at home to prevent the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19), not only are our daily routines disrupted, but our normal sleep schedules are, too.
According to a recent study conducted by sleephelp.org, 22% of people reported that their sleep quality has been worse than usual because of coronavirus, with most of that decline caused by stress, fear, and anxiety. These feelings most commonly stem from fears about the trajectory of the virus, the new life in lockdown, and the financial implications of being laid off. With all that’s going on right now, it’s normal to be having weirder, more vivid dreams.
What is a vivid dream?
Vivid dreams are defined as dreams where you remember just about every detail, down to colors, clothing, smells, and conversations; they tend to feel more real than other dreams that seem more distant, foggy, and disjointed. “The actions really sit with you,” explains Lauri Loewenberg, professional dream expert and member of the International Association for the Study of Dreams.
She explains to us that we are more likely to remember bizarre or upsetting dreams, the ones that strongly impact us emotionally, and especially those that jolt us awake due to their intensity.
So, why is everyone having weird dreams lately?
Between the quality of our sleep changing and the uncertainty of our current environment, it’s a perfect recipe for producing whacky dreams.
“Most of us are actually getting more sleep because we no longer have to wake up at 6 a.m., jump out of bed, and get ready to go to work. Instead, we are able to wake up naturally and linger in bed a bit longer, which allows us more time to remember our dreams, says Loewenberg. “The alarm clock is the biggest killer of dream recall there is.”
In addition, we are spending our days with a good amount of stress. Many people are worrying: Am I going to get coronavirus? Will my family get it? Am I going to get my job back? How long is this going to go on? Will I ever be able to buy toilet paper again? And they’re not alone.
“Typically, what affects us the most during the day and what is on our mind the most is what our dreams will address at night,” says Loewenberg. “So a day filled with uncertainty and stress will result in upsetting and stressful dreams.”
This checks out. Unemployment numbers have skyrocketed in just a few weeks, more people are laying awake wondering how they’ll be able to pay their bills, and the constant death tolls on the news are impacting people’s mental health.
In removing the “brave face” we may have on while working from home or interacting with our families and loved ones, these dreams are showing us—sometimes in strange ways—how we really feel.
“Through these dreams, we are not only expressing our anxiety, but we are also figuring out what to do about the situation at hand,” says Loewenberg. “Dreams are our built-in problem-solvers. They can often provide guidance, solutions, or simply show us—in a brutally honest manner—how well or how poorly we are dealing with our stress.”
What do these coronavirus dreams mean?
There are entire online threads in which people are sharing their weird coronavirus dreams, and while not every dream has to do with getting the virus itself (a valid, common fear), even the more abstract dreams could be a signal that our brains are processing the events around us as stressful or even traumatic. According to Loewenberg, every detail in our dreams has meaning and is connected to something specific in our lives.
Some common examples of these dreams have been interpreted by Loewenberg:
- Dreams involving tornadoes, tidal waves, and flooding: These are all weather- and nature-related. In dreams, weather tends to reflect our current emotional state because our emotions are the weather of the mind. Turbulent weather in a dream means turbulent emotions.
- Vehicle getting stuck in mud or floodwaters: This one is pretty self-explanatory, since we are all stuck in our homes, but the details matter. Floodwater represents concern over a worsening situation or mindset. Mud often represents depression. We all need to monitor our own mental well-being and that of our loved ones because this can be a very depressing time.
- Bug infestations, or bugs or ants coming out of various body orifices: This is connected to irritation—something or someone really bugging you. Being on lockdown 24/7 can really get to some people, to the point where we become irrationally annoyed at a roommate or partner. The more bugs in the dream, the more you’re irritated in waking life.
How to reprogram scary or unsettling dreams:
This is undoubtedly a nerve-racking time. But getting a good night’s sleep is important for keeping up our mental and physical health—both of which are of paramount importance right now. Loewenberg advises that you look at these weird dreams as a reflection of your current situation and state of mind.
“If your dreams are becoming more and more stressful, that is a clear indication that your waking-life stress is getting out of control,” she says. In her experience, journaling your thoughts right before you go to sleep can be beneficial for a more peaceful mind.
You can start by writing out what you are worried about or what is troubling you the most right now. Include the positive outcome you would like to see, and then think of something that you can actively do to reach that outcome.
“This allows you to sort out all of those jumbled, stressful thoughts, [which will help] get them out of your head and onto paper,” she says. “Take up as many pages in your journal as you need to get [your thoughts] out. As you drift off to sleep, don’t think about what worries you. Think about what you love, who you love, what you want to do in the future, etc. You will be surprised how much this will change your dreams and, in turn, how much it changes your stress.”
The exhaustion many of us are feeling due to quarantine and social distancing can make us feel restless, both in the body and in the mind. But stopping to breathe, think, and get our thoughts out may be the answer to a more restful night’s sleep. I know I’ll be trying it tonight.