People are having vivid dreams during the coronavirus pandemic. Here's why.
As the novel coronavirus spread rapidly across the United States, an unshakeable fear sank in for 28-year-old Nathalie Hutchison.
As news reports detailed increasing fatalities associated with COVID-19 and the possibility that hospitals would not have the capacity to treat all who were sick, Hutchison began to worry more and more about her own health, and the safety of her more vulnerable mother.
As a resident of New York City, a hot spot for the disease, she felt those fears spiral as the death toll soared, and her anxiety began to play out well past her waking hours, in the form of vivid dreams.
One night she dreamed she needed supplies for her home garden but had to go to Jurassic Park, after hours, to get them. Another night, she dreamed she was filming a fancy gathering on the water in Italy or maybe Malta, and came across celebrities like Jane Fonda and Hugh Grant, who knew her and waved.
Hutchison started writing down her dreams again, something she’s done on and off since she was a teenager. She found now, as she did then, that she is the most imaginative while asleep when she is the most stressed.
As her dreams intensified and became more frequent, she knew she couldn’t be the only one feeling the stress of the pandemic seep into her subconscious. She took to Instagram, posting a poll that asked friends and family members if they, too, were experiencing unusually vivid dreams. So far, she has collected dreams from 29 people across the world, including in Connecticut.
The dreams were varied and wild: people dreamed of marrying tigers, having their homes turn into bars, having dead rats fall out of their foot on a trip to Paris, impersonating Angelina Jolie at a spa, losing a leg and cutting their partners' hair. Others had experiences like punching themselves in the face while asleep or drooling for the first time.
Many people are having these strange, realistic dreams during the pandemic, and it's due, in part, to most people getting more sleep, specifically REM sleep, or rapid eye movement, which is when dreaming is more likely because our brains are more active.
REM sleep usually happens about 90 minutes after someone falls asleep and typically lasts 10 minutes, and then happens several more times during the night, with each REM state getting longer.
Our longest and most involved dreams tend to happen after we’ve been asleep for several hours, said Dr. Peter Morgan, chair of psychiatry at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital.
Due to stay-at-home orders, many people are not rushing to get up in the mornings, so they have more time to reflect on their dreams, and if we're thinking about them, that tends to mean we'll remember them better, he said. “In an environment where we get to spend more time sleeping, that means more REM sleep and more dreams. That’s part of the reason people are having more dreams right now.”
During REM sleep, our minds are looking for connections that can be made between experiences we had when we were awake.
"What REM sleep does is it opens up the brain to look at all possible connections and allows some to form and that's how the brain is able to make assumptions about what leads to what," Morgan said, which explains why our dreams can be "wild and jump from one thing to another or bring things together that we wouldn't expect."
That's also part of why it's hard to remember our dreams. A lot of times, they are punctuated by changes in scenery or mood or people, one thing morphing into the next.
"If there's a strong focus, something we've really been thinking about a lot, it will coalesce in our dreams in different ways, and they become easier to remember," Morgan said.
With the pandemic on everyone’s minds, our brains are searching for connections that can be made to the changes happening to our daily lives.
Take, for example, an entry from a Connecticut resident to the website idreamofcovid.com, where people can submit the dreams they're having about the coronavirus.
The author, whose name is not listed, dreamed about downloading an app for contact tracing, the process of reaching out to those infected with COVID-19 to find out whom they’ve been in close contact with.
“Suddenly I could see all these people through the phone that I couldn’t see with my eyes alone,” the entry reads. “The people were green or red. Red people weren’t safe to be near. I had to walk around holding my phone up so I wouldn’t accidentally get close to a red person.”
An entry from another Connecticut resident, whose name also is not published, described dreaming about the world ending.
“Only a few people knew, and I was one of them. I was running around an unfamiliar city (maybe New York?) trying to get things done last minute, upset I wouldn’t get to see the year 2021. A woman who kind of looked like someone from Grey’s Anatomy offered me an end of the world cake, then after I took it she said she actually meant to give it to someone else,” the entry reads.
At a time when we’re withdrawn from our usual environments, our brains, at times, are looking to the past and past experiences.
“It’s kind of like how somebody in a prison cell might develop a very vivid imagination,” Morgan said. COVID-19 "is giving us a smaller world. Our brain is reaching for something bigger.”
John Kaczkowski, 27, said his dreams have taken him back in time.
The 2016 Mitchell College graduate, who now lives in Vermont, said he’s had several dreams featuring his deceased grandparents. In the dreams, he's a kid and watching his grandparents from a distance.
“It feels like I’m there, but I’m looking at them from the third-person perspective like the movie ‘A Christmas Carol,'” he said. “I want to say something and talk to them, but I can’t. I’m standing back and watching.”
Kaczkowski said he's also dreamed about experiences he had while working at the Vermont Department of Corrections, like fights that broke out or the time he saw an inmate “self-harm.”
“Once in a while I fly out of bed and it takes me a minute to realize I’m home. I’m not there,” he said.
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