Since March 2020, when the world began to really feel the life-changing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, individuals have been experiencing less quality sleep, stress, and an uptick in bad dreams. In a pre-pandemic world, common stress dreams used to revolve around things like work or school tardiness, falling, or losing your front teeth. Nowadays, however, many are reporting COVID-19 (and its repercussions) as a common theme in their bad dreams. 

Here’s everything we know about pandemic stress dreams, what they may mean, and how you can improve your sleep if you’ve seen a decline in your sleep quality during these trying times. 

COVID-19 Has Changed How We Sleep

The uncertainties and dangers of COVID-19 have wreaked havoc on our day-to-day lives, from how we interact in grocery stores to how often we see our closest loved ones. Unfortunately, for those who have felt added stress because of the virus, poor sleep quality and pandemic-related nightmares are also unforeseen side effects. 

Interestingly enough, there seems to be a correlation between higher stress levels during the pandemic and general, overall sleep quality. Stress during the pandemic has seemingly led to an increase in sleep latency (the amount of time it takes for you to fall asleep), middle-of-the-night awakenings, nightmares, and an irregular sleep-wake cycle.

Similar to how you might dream about missing a flight the night before you have to wake up at 4:30 a.m. to drive to the airport, the general population is living this out tenfold. COVID-19 and its stressors have had a profound, widespread effect on the quality of a person’s rest, and for some, the content of their dreams (and nightmares). 

If you’ve had numerous dreams in the last year involving the fear of large crowds, missing an important event, or something else eerily pandemic-related, you’re not alone. During a week-long study conducted six weeks into the initial 2020 lockdown, researchers collected sleep and stress data from 4,275 participants ranging from under 20, to over 65-years-old.

Of this group, 811 were able to recollect their dreams, and their dream associations were separated by the amount of stress they felt after the pandemic hit (increased, stable, or decreased). 

Increased-Stress Individuals Are More Likely to Lose Sleep and Experience Stress Dreams

More than half of the participants in the study reported feeling more stressed after the pandemic began. As you might have guessed, this group of individuals experienced the biggest effect on their quality of sleep, and content of their dreams. 

From the 767 participants who reported feeling the high amounts of stress, over 60% said they were waking up more frequently throughout the night, and a whopping 46% of them experienced bad dreams more frequently. 

And from those bad dreams, more than half were associated with the pandemic. This group’s most frequent words within the dream data were “coronavirus,” “crowd,” and “death,” and they shared a common dream cluster of travel difficulties and overcrowding

Low-Stress Individuals Still Experience Distress

While the other 44% of participants in the study reported feeling no change or a decrease in their stress levels, the results of their dream data reported “crowd,” “friend,” and “Coronavirus” as their most frequent dream words. Half of them claimed to experience more nightmares, and even proved to show “disregard of distancing” as a top dream cluster label. 

These results suggest not everyone has experienced an increase in stress levels during the pandemic, however, our sleepy, unconscious minds can be universally and substantially impacted, regardless of how anxious we feel. 

What Do Your Pandemic Dreams Mean?

The pandemic may be one of the most circumstantial events in our lifetimes so far, but this surely isn’t the first time dreams have been affected by a large-scale, traumatic event. A similar occurrence was observed after September 11, as with major wars, and there are a few theories that attempt to explain the purpose of stressful dreams.

Dream Continuity Hypothesis

This is a common theory among experts stating dreams are a reflection of a person’s feelings, sentiments, and concerns, and serve as a coping mechanism to help regulate your emotions. 

Threat Simulation Theory 

As opposed to the previous hypothesis, the threat simulation theory states that dreams are an evolutionary defense mechanism meant to simulate dangerous situations so you learn how to handle them in the future. 

If you apply these theories to current events and people’s attitudes towards the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s possible that your body is attempting to process the immediate dangers we face on a daily basis, and the sudden, drastic changes we collectively had to make to our everyday lifestyles. 

You also may be subconsciously learning how to maneuver your new life circumstances, whatever that may be, and how to avoid situations that might get you in trouble.  

This can be especially true if you’re working on the frontlines of the pandemic, are at high-risk, or have a high-risk loved one you’re concerned about. 

How to Sleep Better During The Pandemic

If you’re struggling with virus-related stress, dreams, or nightmares, know you’re not alone. Traumatic events across history have proven to take their toll on a number of people’s sleep quality, and can even invoke vivid nightmares. However, it’s important to reclaim your sleep to maintain physical and mental health, especially in these trying times. Sleep deprivation is a precursor to more serious health issues like obesity, diabetes, depression, and a lowered immune system. 

Here are a few ways you can maintain sleep hygiene, lower stress before bed, and get your sleeping schedule back on track. 

  1. Stick to a bedtime routine – Bed times aren’t just for kids. If your sleep schedule has been thrown off thanks to the pandemic, get it back on track with a bedtime routine. Beginning at the same time each night, practice calming activities to help wind you down for bed. Soon, your body will begin to naturally recognize when your bedtime rolls around and respond with sleepiness. 
  2. Start a journal – If stress from COVID-19 has you awake at night and overwhelmed with anxious thoughts, journal writing before bed may help you get them off your chest, and away from the confines of your mind. 
  3. Avoid electronics before bed – Electronics such as your mobile phone, television, or laptop emit blue light that’s harmful to your body’s natural production of melatonin. Melatonin helps regulate your sleep-wake cycle, and helps induce sleepiness so you feel ready for bed. To combat this, turn off electronics an hour and a half before bed. 
  4. 20-minute rule – For those who have trouble with falling asleep at night during the pandemic, here’s a pro tip. If you’ve been laying down in bed for 20 minutes and still haven’t fallen asleep, get up and try to do something relaxing (glass of herbal tea, gentle stretches) until you feel sleepy again. 
  5. Create a comfortable set up – Nobody is going to sleep soundly throughout the night if they’re sleeping on an old, beat-up mattress. There are quality online beds at all price points, so almost anyone can upgrade their set-up and receive better, more restful sleep.