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Our dreams have changed both in content and frequency during and after lockdowns, a study has found. kkgas/Stocksy United
  • The coronavirus pandemic has affected our sleep quality and patterns, and our dreams can reflect this impact.
  • A study in Italy analyzed people’s dreams during and after lockdown to see if there were any changes.
  • In both periods, individuals reported disturbed sleep, negative emotions, and pandemic-related nightmares.
  • The researchers found that people had richer and more lucid dreams during lockdown but more dreams post-lockdown.
  • The study adds to existing research showing the link between emotionally intense life events, stress, and sleep.

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Whether it’s a feeling of being trapped, overall frustration, anxiety, or living in an alternate reality, the coronavirus pandemic has awakened interesting and uncomfortable feelings in many. The recurring cycle of curfews, lockdowns, and reopenings have also become added burdens on mental health.

One of the ways the human body has tried to cope with this flood of overwhelming emotions and containment measures has been through dreams.

Many people who had almost nonexistent or rather dull dream worlds pre-pandemic started to report richer, longer and more frequent, bizarre, and vivid dreams.

Meanwhile, more individuals reported feeling negative emotions such as sadness, anger, and loneliness during sleep.

Researchers from Italy have investigated the impact of lockdown as a factor, and their findings appear in the Journal of Sleep Research.

Dr. Serena Scarpelli and her team from the Sapienza University in Rome were observing an interesting trend on social media in 2020, one in which people were sharing reports of their dreams on these platforms, right from the beginning of the first lockdown.

In these reports, individuals claimed to have been experiencing more dreams, which were increasingly more bizarre and vivid. That was when the researchers decided to investigate this “pandemic dreams” phenomenon in a systematic way.

Dr. Scarpelli told Medical News Today that sleep quality and dream activity were important indices of a person’s well-being.

“Just think, for example, that the presence of nightmares is a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We are seeing this in all the pandemic studies, and monitoring dream variables over time will certainly give us more information,” she said.

Recent studies published in the journal Nature and Science of Sleep have also suggested isolation may influence psychological distress. However, it did not affect sleep quality in the symptoms researchers measured.

The study looked into 90 subjects aged 19-41 years, a majority of which were women, and asked them to fill out sleep-dream diaries in the morning and answer online surveys over 2 consecutive weeks.

The first week was while Italy was still in full lockdown, and the second was when its government eased restrictions.

Italy was the first country to confirm a coronavirus case outside of China, where it first emerged. The country saw infections rise in a matter of months, leaving its unprepared health system overwhelmed.

Italy went into a nationwide lockdown between March and May. Web surveys conducted during this period showed that over half of the population reported poorer sleep, more sleep disturbances, and taking hypnotic medication to remedy this.

In light of previous research, the Italian researchers hypothesized that just as lockdowns affected the quality and quantity of our dreams, so would the easing of such strict measures.

Here is a breakdown of their findings.

Lockdown vs. post-lockdown dreams

As people’s sleeping patterns changed during lockdown, such as from getting up later and not having to commute to work, dreams also changed.

Sleeping for longer also increases REM sleep — the stage of sleep involving heightened brain activity, which could lead to more vivid dreams.

According to the data that the researchers collected, Italians awoke more at night, had more trouble falling asleep, recalled more dreams, and had lucid dreams more often during lockdown.

Overall, people reported poorer sleep quality, while over 50% of the participants showed anxiety and PTSD symptoms during sleep.

Bad sleep, or waking up throughout the night, can also cause more lucid dreams, studies have found.

During lockdowns, lucid dreams acted as a coping mechanism to help people deal with the reality of confinement, the researchers said.

However, in the post-lockdown period, individuals had more dreams, including those being in crowded places.

Women vs. men

The authors highlighted that, like other studies of this nature, the low number of male participants makes it unrepresentative of the whole population.

Indeed, 80% of the subjects in this study were women.

Dr. Scarpelli and her team found that, compared to men, women recalled more dreams and experienced more negative emotions during sleep.

However, she added:

“I believe that COVID-19 has impacted both men and women identically. However, it must be remembered that some trait factors influence dream activity, and gender and age are among them.”

Dream contents

Apart from classics, such as teeth falling out, being nude in public, and falling, people saw more pandemic-related dreams in lockdown, including contracting a viral infection, having breathing problems, and suffocating.

The post-lockdown period, in contrast, individuals saw more dreams about being in large crowds or traveling. This could have associations with the easing of restrictions surrounding these areas and fears about returning to pre-pandemic normals, the researchers said.

Similar studies have compared dreams experienced during the pandemic and before the first outbreak.

A study conducted in Canada observed 5,000 people and their sleeping habits. Researchers found three trends with sleep: individuals either spent “extended time in bed” or “reduced time in bed” or had “delayed sleep.”

They also noticed changes in sleeping medication use during the pandemic, compared to pre-outbreak estimates.

Dr. Scarpelli and her team also revisited the “continuity hypothesis” in their research. Rather than everyday events of minimal significance, they theorized that personal concerns and events of high emotional intensity continued to affect us while we sleep and become incorporated into our mental sleep activity.

And as dreaming and memory processes are interrelated, the study’s findings confirmed the pandemic was a “collective trauma,” manifesting as changes to dreaming, the authors said.

Although we can speak of collective trauma in a global pandemic, it is important to point out that not everyone will have the same experience or react to the same degree.

A majority of people will return to normal and their pre-pandemic routines and patterns once the pandemic is truly over, said Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D., the author of Pandemic Dreams.

But she said three groups were likely to suffer negatively from the pandemic, even when it ends.

The first group of people likely to experience trauma and recurring nightmares is healthcare workers, specifically those working on the frontlines at emergency rooms and intensive care units. Second, those who experienced personal losses during the pandemic, and third, those with any sort of anxiety disorder, Barrett told MNT.

Dr. Scarpelli said the impact of lockdowns on sleep quality is incontrovertible, and those who have suffered the most, in this sense, have been those who have undergone major life changes because of the pandemic.

This could be either those who have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 or individuals who have lost their jobs or loved ones, she said.

‘It is therefore possible that in the long term, we will see a split between those who will return to a sort of ‘normality’ and those who, having had greater consequences [from the pandemic in their lives], will report sleep problems for a long time.”
– Dr. Serena Scarpelli

Those who have contracted the infection may also be facing the added challenge of long COVID, which health experts define as a series of symptoms ⁠— the most common of which are fatigue, joint pain, and brain fog ⁠— that persist long after the initial infection.

“Inevitably, all these aspects can affect the quality of life of the individual and therefore also the quality of sleep and dream activity.”

If you are having a hard time falling or staying asleep, there are a few things that experts recommend.

Reading or watching something soothing at bedtime could help you drift off quicker, but according to Barrett, it is best to avoid scary movies or anything about COVID-19.

As for physical tension in the body, deep, mindful breathing that activates abdominal muscles and progressive muscle relaxation can bring about calm.

However, if anxiety-filled dreams are the problem, Barrett recommends actively trying to have pleasant dreams.

“The best way is to think of what dreams you would like to have: Dream of a loved one, favorite vacation spot, or many people enjoy flying dreams. Or maybe you have one all-time favorite dream.”

This, or the act of suggesting yourself topics to dream about, is called “dream incubation.”

“Think of that favorite person, place, or flying. Or replay that very favorite dream in detail,” said Barrett, and added to strengthen your incubation, “repeat to yourself what you want to dream about as you drift off to sleep.”

Those not so good at visualizing people, objects, or concepts may benefit from visual stimulants and cues before they fall asleep.

“If images don’t come easily to you, place a photo or other objects related to the topic on your nightstand to view as the last thing before turning off your light,” she said.