Here's Why You've Been Having Strange Dreams During the Pandemic

Mental health experts weigh in on how the COVID-19 outbreak may be influencing your dreams.

Have you been having strange dreams since going into coronavirus quarantine? If so, you are far from alone, as it seems an increasing number of people have been wondering why their dreams have grown startlingly more vivid. In fact, Google searches of the question, "why am I having weird dreams lately?" have quadrupled in the United States in the past week alone.

As a society, we often search for deeper truths hidden within our dreams, but what does it mean when vivid dreaming begins to happen collectively among large groups of people? While the fickle nature of dreams makes them difficult to study, there are a few theories experts have as to what the root of this recent spike in strange dreams might be.

"The coronavirus [pandemic]—and the steps being taken to address it—are filtering into all aspects of people's lives, even their dreams," says Carole Lieberman MD, MPH. "Freud called dreams 'the royal road to the unconscious.' So, while we may not be expressing the extent of our fears or dread in everyday conversation, they are being expressed in our dreams—or nightmares." Nightmares are one of the trademarks of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), says Liberman, who found that her patients who absorbed themselves in hours of triggering news post-9/11 experienced trauma similar to PTSD that was accompanied by vivid dreams. While some experts can't seem to agree on whether or not watching traumatic coverage can evoke PTSD, they do concede that viewing distressing news can result in anxiety and upsetting nightmares.

Shifts in our sleeping schedules due to the pandemic could also be to blame. "The longer we sleep, the more chance we have not only to dream but to have vivid dreams," says Stephanie Gailing, wellness consultant and author of The Complete Book of Dreams. Why is that the case? "We run through a full sleep cycle about every 90 minutes, with each cycle including a period of REM sleep, the stage in which we have vivid and memorable dreams," Gailing says. "So the longer we sleep, the more REM cycles we can have. Additionally, each subsequent REM cycle is longer, so if we sleep longer, we also have longer periods in which we're having vivid and memorable dreams."

While it seems some people are having dreams that feel connected to the pandemic—ones that include the presence of insects, infections, face masks, or large crowds, for example—others report dreams utterly unrelated to COVID-19, says dream expert Sharon Pastore. She attributes this to the idea that, "because the language of dreams is in metaphor, being home with less to distract may stir up the mind to dream about anything else you've been plagued by that is left unresolved—a bad relationship or work situations."

It's not only adults who experience this mysterious phenomenon, either. Psychotherapist Kelley Kitley, LCSW, who says her kids have been having overly vivid dreams, emphasizes the importance of allowing both kids and adults the opportunity to process dreams—even if they struggle to make sense of them. In addition, she suggests parents validate how scary the dreams must feel for the child and reassure them they are safe. When it comes to her adult clients, Kitley has them "write about their dream as soon as they wake up so they don't have to carry it around with them all day in their mind."

Finally, if your dreams feel out of your control, try to ease up on your news intake, stay away from screens before bed, and practice meditation.

For more on another common quarantine condition, check out Is "Cabin Fever" Real? And Do You Have It? Experts Explain.

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