COVID-19 spurs anxious, upsetting dreams

Women especially affected, studies show

WASHINGTON — The anxiety, stress and worry brought on by COVID-19 is not limited to daytime hours. The pandemic is affecting our dreams as well, infusing more anxiety and negative emotions into dreams and spurring dreams about the virus itself, particularly among women, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

In a special section in the journal Dreaming, researchers reported on the results of four studies from around the world about people’s dreams during the pandemic. Previous research has suggested that our dreams often reflect what’s happening in our waking lives and that other crises–including war, natural disasters and terrorist attacks–have led to an increase in anxious dreams. The four studies in this special section found that the same is true of COVID-19.

“All of these studies support the continuity hypothesis of dreaming: That dreams are consistent with our waking concerns rather than being some outlet for compensation, as some older psychoanalytic theories had hypothesized,” said Deirdre Barrett, PhD, editor of Dreaming and an assistant professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “The higher levels of anxiety, dreams about illness and death in general, and COVID-19 specifically, are in line with that.”

Overall, the new studies also suggest that women’s dreams have been more strongly affected by the pandemic than men’s–possibly, Barrett suggested, because women are bearing more of the burden of caregiving, job loss and other hardships.

“Dreams can help us understand our emotional reactions to the pandemic,” Barrett said. For example, one mother in a study by Barrett dreamed that her child’s school contacted her to say that the child’s whole class was being sent to her condominium to be home-schooled for the duration of the pandemic. “When mothers of young children hear that dream, there is a laughter but also usually a strong empathy at the overwhelmed feeling the dream dramatizes. Your dreams can make you more aware of just what about the pandemic is bothering you the most–and sharing them with trusted others is a good conversation-starter for talking about these shared feelings,” Barrett said.

The four COVID-19 articles in the issue are:

“Dreaming and the COVID-19 pandemic: A survey in a U.S. American sample”

Michael Schredl, PhD, Zentralinstitut fu?r Seelische Gesundheit, and Kelly Bulkeley, PhD, The Sleep and Dream Database

This study of more than 3,000 U.S. adults surveyed in early May 2020 found that people who had been most strongly affected by the pandemic–such as those who had gotten sick or lost their job–also reported the strongest effects on their dream life (heightened dream recall, more negative dreams and more pandemic-related dreams). Women and people with more education also reported stronger effects of the pandemic on their dreams. The findings suggest that changes in the frequency, tone and content of dreams can help identify those at risk for mental health problems during the pandemic, according to the researchers.

Contact: Michael Schredl

“Dreams about COVID-19 vs. Normative Dreams: Trends by Gender”

Deirdre Barrett, PhD, Harvard University

Women’s dreams have been more negatively affected by COVID-19 than men’s dreams, according to this international study of 2,888 participants. The researcher asked online survey respondents to recount their dreams about the pandemic and then compared the responses to a database of dreams from before the pandemic. Overall, women showed significantly lower rates of positive emotions and higher levels of anxiety, sadness, anger and references to biological processes, health and death in their pandemic dreams compared with the pre-pandemic dreams. Men’s pandemic dreams showed slightly higher levels of negative emotions, anxiety and death than in pre-pandemic dreams, but the effects were less pronounced than they were for women.

Contact: Deirdre Barrett

“Dreaming in the Time of Covid-19: A Quali-Quantitative Italian Study”

Ilaria Iorio, PhD, Massimiliano Sommantico, PhD, and Santa Parrello, PhD, Universita degli Studi di Napoli Federico II

Researchers analyzed the dreams of 796 Italian participants, all of whom completed a dream
questionnaire in April and May 2020 and described their most recent dream in detail. Twenty percent of the dreams included an explicit reference to COVID-19, the researchers found. Overall, women reported higher emotional intensity and a more negative emotional tone in their dreams, as did participants who knew people affected by COVID-19.

Contact: Massimiliano Sommantico

“Pandemic Dreaming: The Effect of COVID-19 on Dream Imagery, a Pilot Study”

Cassidy MacKay, BSc, and Teresa L. DeCicco, PhD, Trent University

Pandemic-era dreams resemble the dreams of people with anxiety, suggests this study of Canadian college students. Researchers analyzed detailed dream journals from 19 Canadian college students recorded between mid-February and mid-March 2020, as the pandemic and pandemic-related physical distancing restrictions were taking hold in Canada. They found that the pandemic-era dreams contained more location changes, as well as animal, head, food and virus-related dream imagery compared with a control group of people who kept dream journals before the pandemic. This type of dream imagery is similar to previous findings of the dream imagery of people experiencing waking day anxiety, according to the researchers.

Contact: Teresa L. DeCicco

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The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States. APA’s membership includes nearly 121,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people’s lives.

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