Why We're Having Strange COVID Dreams

If your dreams have been extra “co-vivid”—you’re not alone. Here’s why it’s happening, plus, expert advice on what to do to encourage happier dreams.

Woman dreaming on a mattress in the water
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As much of the world sheltered in place to slow the spread of COVID-19, our collective anxiety sparked a marked increase in dream recall.

And all those dreams we’re suddenly remembering? Let’s just say, things got weird.

Ever since stay-at-home orders took effect across much of America in March 2020, people have reported waking up in the morning with lingering memories of bizarre dreams.

Tracking the Curious COVID Dreams and Nightmares

San Francisco Bay Area sisters Erin and Grace Gravley launched a website called i dream of covid to collect and curate unusual pandemic dreams submitted from people around the world.

Responses from Argentina to Oregon poured in, and dreamers didn’t hold back when recounting their bizarre sleep stories. Dr. Anothony Fauci makes several appearances, as do plenty of ambulances, bugs, and face masks.

  • A Colorado woman had a stressful dream that she was in a crowded movie theater where no one was wearing masks, and an elderly woman kept reaching across her personal space.
  • Someone in Massachusetts had a (terrifying sounding) nightmare that a flying insect carrying COVID-19 had embedded itself deep within their leg.
  • An Australian dreamed that, instead of being a pathogen, COVID was, in fact, an organized group of people—a sinister army marching toward them.
  • A teenager in Delaware had a classic teeth-falling-out nightmare, but in this version of it, her mother informed her that tooth loss was a sign of the coronavirus.

Inspired by Charlotte Beradt’s book, “The Third Reich of Dreams,” which explores how an external crisis can affect a group of people’s collective dreaming patterns, Erin Gravley explains that she launched the blog to better understand “how the anxieties of the moment would translate to our dreams.”

When asked in an April 2020 NPR interview if she was noticing thematic symbols emerging, Erin Gravley said: “One of the earliest patterns that I noticed was people associating hugging with danger or menace. So there are a couple dreams where the dreamers described that someone wanted to hug them, and it made them very frightened and—even to the point where they would yell, like, you're hurting me; you're going to kill me.”

The Gravley sisters aren’t the only people documenting the pandemic’s effects on our dreams. A group of post-grad psychoanalysis students at University College London launched Lockdown Dreams. According to the students, this project aims to “explore the relationships between the imagistic and emotional content of people’s dreams and their self-reported experience of lockdown and its impact on their mood.” They intend to archive all the submissions they receive and plan to later analyze trends in the data.

According to Jake Roberts, a spokesperson for Lockdown Dreams, among the most common dreams they are seeing reported are ones where the dreamer is running from someone or they realize they've done something wrong. What sets these dreams apart from non-pandemic dreams, though, are the intense details that dreamers (who have been spending their days in the monotonous rhythm of lockdown) can suddenly remember.

“Everyone’s quite shocked by the fact that they’re having incredibly vivid dreams,” Roberts told the Guardian. “That’s so interesting because our material waking lives have become, in a way, more dull.”

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What’s Causing These Intense COVID Dreams?

As we’ve sheltered in place and hit pause on much of our everyday lives, the uptick in rich and unusual dreams is a commonly reported, albeit curious, global phenomenon. It’s also fascinating that people who don’t typically remember their dreams say that they’re suddenly recalling them more than ever during the lockdowns.

Researchers and sleep experts are still exploring what’s behind our quarantine dreams, but most agree a combination of the following factors are likely at play:

  • Anxiety, fear, and stress. The pandemic has placed a heavy mental burden on our nation and the world. Even as restrictions loosen across the U.S., we’re still overwhelmed with news of virus spikes in dozens of cities, an economy that’s limping along, and natural unease over reentry into a masked, socially distanced, “new normal” kind of world. Among American adults, indicators of mental illness and distress have recently jumped a whopping 700% compared to pre-pandemic data collected in 2018.

    It makes sense then that the current trauma we’re experiencing carries over into our dreams. “For many people, the stress they’re feeling during the pandemic is unprecedented and chronic,” says Seth Davis, founder of Sleepably, a Denver-based company offering professional sleep coach services for children and adults across the U.S. “Their minds are trying to process this ongoing dilemma as it unfolds, and much of that processing occurs while asleep.”

    According to Davis, our dreams are often a distorted reflection of our thoughts and experiences from while we’re awake. For example, if you’re frustrated about not being able to find a job, you might dream about trying to do something and failing repeatedly.

  • Upended sleep patterns. Without the commutes and school runs that once had us springing out of bed at the first ring of the alarm, these days, many of us are sleeping a bit later than usual. A lengthier rest results in more REM sleep near the end of our slumber, and it’s during these periods of REM sleep that we’re most likely to recall our dreams. In other words, researchers believe that because we’re sleeping more, the increase in the number of REM sleep cycles elevates the potential for dream recall.
  • A lack of social interaction and mental stimulation. Studies have found that when people are isolated, their brains crave interaction with others, much like a hungry person craves food. It’s possible, too, that when we’re stuck at home, we experience a dip in mental activity—a decline that potentially makes us crave more brain stimulation. Add these things together, and what we might are highly bizarre dreams born out of our brains’ boredom.

    Roberts, of the Lockdown Dreams project, summarized our new dreaming habits like this: “Our minds are obviously reaching out to try and make something from the little stimuli we’re receiving being locked down and bringing up things we’ve completely forgotten about.”

A Sleep Expert’s Tips for Improving Sleep and Dreams

Between coronavirus fears, other unsettling current events, everyday worries, and the onslaught of super-vivid dreams, we have more than our fair share of stressors to potentially keep us up at night.

If you’re looking for more peaceful, restorative sleep during these unsettling times, Davis offers several pieces of advice. “Take care of yourself and your health, even in these strange times,” he says. “Stay physically active, practice healthy nutrition, and find the time to maintain healthy relationships.”

In addition, Davis recommends practicing relaxation whenever possible. “Meditate, take a warm bath, read a good book, or even just take 10 minutes out of your day to breathe deeply,” he says. According to Davis, when we tap into this type of relaxation during the day—or even in the middle of the night—it helps take the edge off any stress that is affecting sleep.

Stick to a regular sleep routine, even on the weekends, Davis advises, though it doesn’t need to conform to the same schedule you had before the pandemic started. Going to sleep and waking up around the same time each day ensures that our bodies’ internal rhythms are optimized for healthy sleep.

“Naps can help people get a boost of afternoon energy and focus, but it is possible to nap too long,” Davis explains. “If you nap more than 20 minutes, you risk making it harder to fall asleep at night.” He recommends a short power nap in the early afternoon. (Or try a “coffee nap,” for a burst of extra focus.)

4 Ways to Invite and Manifest More Positive Dreams

According to Davis, we can all increase our likelihood of experiencing happy, fulfilling dreams by working to maintain a more positive state of mind. When we’re brimming with gratitude, kindness, and love, our worries and stresses will be diminished when it’s time for sleep.

Here are some practical actions Davis recommends for inspiring positive dreams:

1. Keep a Gratitude Journal: Write a quick nightly list of the things you appreciate and are grateful for in your life. Doing this shifts your mindset from worrying about potentially negative things to appreciating all the good things going on.

2. Handle Your Stresses During Daytime: Deal with your stress factors head-on during your days rather than saving them to worry about at night. You can designate times to worry about something, map out a plan to address your problems, or speak with a therapist who can listen and discuss what’s bothering you. The sooner your problems feel less threatening, the better chance that your dreams will improve.

3. Add Subtle Scents and Sounds to Your Bedroom: If there are certain sounds (such as babbling brook or crackling campfire) or scents (such as a pine forest or ocean beach) that take you to your happy place, you can recreate those sensory experiences in your bedroom. Experiment with sound apps on your phone to find relaxing background noise, and try out a scented spray or candle. By basking in familiar scents and sounds at bedtime, you can try to guide your dreams in more satisfying directions.

4. Smile at Bedtime: Just as smiling during a phone conversation can make you sound more positive, smiling right before sleep can add a positive spin to your dreams. Think about something that brings a genuine smile to your face and let that warm feeling send you off to sleep.