What Your Quarantine Dreams Mean

If your nighttime reveries seem more vivid, here’s why.

woman in bed looking distressed

I’m not a big dreamer — at least when it comes to what kicks around my brain during REM cycles. Or maybe it’s just that I don’t remember my dreams once I open my eyes. Either way, that all changed during the coronavirus pandemic, which itself feels like a drawn out nightmare, even during waking hours.  

Being cooped up in my apartment took a toll on my sleep hygiene — with nowhere to be, I was staying up way later than usual and not setting an alarm. Some days I got up early; on others, I slept until noon. When I was asleep, I began having dreams that felt super real — and I actually remembered them. In one, I was with my maternal grandmother at my present age. (She died 25 years ago.) I woke up confused, and when I realized she wasn’t really there, it felt as though my sleeping mind had played a cruel joke on me.

A few days later I listened to CNN’s Chris Cuomo (who was broadcasting from his basement after being diagnosed with COVID-19) describe the “phantasmagorical” vision he had of his late father. (I’m not sure if he was asleep or awake at the time.) Then, a close friend of mine relayed how she’d dreamt that she was wandering around the front yard looking for her missing tooth. (Losing teeth is a common dream theme that can sometimes symbolize a fear of losing control.) I started wondering what, exactly, was inspiring this surge in nocturnal narratives.

Dream incorporation is when something you encounter in real life makes its way into your dreams.

According to sleep expert Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM, the unique circumstances we’ve been functioning under for the last few months as a result of the pandemic is having a dramatic impact on our sleep states and therefore, our dreams. Some of the challenges, according to Dr. Breus:

• Eating with abandon: A lot of us are moving from one “comfort food” meal to the next. (Exhibit A: The great banana bread bake-off chronicled on Instagram.)

• Not exercising consistently: Working from home, taking care of (and schooling) kids and a lack of physical space makes it hard to squeeze in regular exercise.

• Erratic sleep: Racing thoughts, restless awakenings, insomnia — there is a clear connection between stress and sleep. This explains why you may be sleeping a lot more or a lot less right now. 

Below, what's behind the content and characteristics of quarantine dreams:

1

If they're related to coronavirus...

I’ve had many people tell me their dreams are tackling the coronavirus directly, dreaming about hospitals and illness and trouble breathing,” says Dr. Breus, who adds that these types of dreams can also be signs of sleep apnea.

More likely they are due to something called “dream incorporation.” Jennifer Martin, clinical psychologist and member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, told CNBC that dream incorporation is when something you encounter in real life makes its way into your dreams. “If you are spending two hours in front of the news media or you end up reading about COVID-19 before bed, it’s pretty likely that [those things] are going to come up in your dreams,” she said.

2

If they're in the form of nightmares...

Many of us are having more nightmares and negatively focused dreams during the pandemic. That’s according to research that’s been underway in several countries, including in Italy, one of the countries hardest hit by the coronavirus, as well as an ongoing study in France. The Italian study has found many of its subjects are experiencing nightmares with an intensity that corresponds to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Scientists say that intense memories are often dealt with in the safety of our subconscious (which includes dreaming). But our disrupted sleep patterns are making it an even bigger struggle for our minds to process troubling feelings. “We normally use REM sleep and dreams to handle intense emotions, particularly negative emotions,” Patrick McNamara, dream expert and associate professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine, told National Geographic. “Obviously, this pandemic is producing a lot of stress and anxiety.”

Dr. Breus explains the science behind how nightmares work — and how to help make your dreams more peaceful and positive — here.

3

If they seem more real...

Dr. Breus notes that people are having stranger dreams, with odd characters and vivid combinations of the average and the bizarre. And these dreams often feel different — more striking, more charged with meaning, more vivid, more real — even if the circumstances of the dreams are fantastical.

One theory: Just as in waking life, the most intense or unique experiences are most memorable. 

4

If you remember them more often...

People are remembering more of their dreams, experiencing what’s known in sleep science as higher dream recall, according to research. That means more of us are taking upsetting dream and nightmare content into our waking days — which can increase stress.

Despite that, this uptick in dreaming (and recall) isn't always a bad thing. Dreams can function as a dress rehearsal for real-life threats and challenges, preparing us mentally for an event we're anticipating. “Dreams are a way for our brains to work through stressful experiences to reduce their psychological load and make them less disruptive to daily life," explains Dr. Breus.

What's not great is if your dreams contribute to sleep deprivation. If you're increasingly anxious, seek the guidance of a therapist. For milder issues, you may be able to improve your shuteye by trying these tips and these soothing yoga posesOr try making Relax, a calming essential oil from THE WELL, part of your bedtime routine. 

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