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The reason you're having weird dreams during the coronavirus pandemic

Last Updated May 13, 2020 at 11:08 am EDT

If you’ve been recalling bizarre dreams more frequently and even having recurring nightmares since the coronavirus pandemic started, you’re not alone.

A quick search on social media sites such as Twitter and Instagram reveals this is becoming a common phenomenon. The hashtag #covidreams and #pandemicnightmares are trending across the globe.

CityNews viewer Mary said in a tweet that she had social distancing nightmares.

Jessica Brenna on Facebook said she had a dream where she ate a bullfrog adding, “literally picked it up from off the road, threw it into my mouth and started chewing on it.”

 

In a new world of social distancing, people are reaching out on social media, and sharing their quarantine experiences, including ones about their sleep patterns being off, and their bizarre dreams keeping them guessing about what it all means.

Different types of fear..and how it relates to sleep

Dr. David Samson, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga, studies sleep as an evolutionary anthropologist. He said heightened levels of fear and anxiety that many of us are feeling as a result of COVID-19, and more particularly the fact that it’s an “invisible threat” is what is contributing to our collective sleep disturbances, even possibly to having weird dreams.

He said from an evolutionary standpoint, experiencing some level of fear — he called it “acute fear” –- is actually a good thing.

Samson explained that it helps humans “increase our fitness,” activating the flight-or-fight response in the body that helps to protect us from dangerous situations – and ensures we survive as a species. 

However, during a pandemic scenario he said that fear response turns into a chronic one that upends our systems and makes it operate in overdrive.

“It’s really important to realize that, particularly from an evolutionary standpoint, we’re not evolved to deal with invisible threats,” Samson said.  

“It’s really threats that we can see that we can see manifest in our environment that we are adapted to combat and, in fact, when we are under threat, our general strategies to become more social and to come together, not become less social and socially ourselves from others. So, this is a particularly interesting and intriguing challenge for people in 21st century.”

The unknown factors about living through a pandemic that many of us have never faced before, such as the risk of dying, vaccine availability and adapting to a new normal, is playing into how we process information and, in turn, dream about it at night.

“Eighty per cent of all dreams in a normal state, like pre-COVID, are anxiety-driven, no matter what,” Samson explained.

“There is some research to support that threatened populations or populations that have experienced trauma, can increase (this) which makes sense given this whole concept that we’ve discussed there being an evolutionary function of dreams.”

Sharing COVID-19 dreams

Morgan McHale-Dill, 29, is a web designer by day and a freelance illustrator during her spare time. She lives in Brighton, England, and says she started illustrating her dreams on Instagram after her mom’s recommendation. She needed help to process her strange dreams, and it was also a good way to pass some time while under lockdown. She created the hashtag #lockdowndreams after receiving more and more messages daily from people sharing their dreams with her and asking her to draw them.

“Someone had to try and save a Koi (fish), but the Koi was the size of a bathtub,” she said of a recent message she got.

“And they could only put it back in the swimming pool, or the sea. But if you don’t quite catch it, you can’t put a Koi in either one of those because it’s going to die.”

 

View this post on Instagram

 

Another day, another one of your #lockdowndreams for #morgandrawslockdowndreams Message me with yours and I will use it if I can! ” I had one last week about a bathtub sized orange and white koi carp which I needed to rehome from said bathtub. I was panicking because my only options were either to put it in the sea or into a swimming pool and I knew both options would likely kill it…” #brightonillustrator #artist #illustrations #coviddreams #corona #dreamart #nightmares #weirddreams #idrawfoxes #childrensillustrators #londonart #brightonart #mixedmedia #illustratorsoninstagram #stayinghome #create #collaborate #sussexillustrator #drawing #illustration #painting #nature

A post shared by Morgana draws foxes & things (@thegirlthatdrawsfoxesandthings) on

“I’ve been trying to do one a day at the moment since last week, but it obviously depends who can recall their dreams and who’s messaging me,” she explained.

“I know there’s a lot of anxiety and stress going on with worrying about loved ones and stuff in the daytime, but most of the time that’s controllable at night. But the way that it’s presented in your dream state is just really interesting, but I quite like hearing about it.”

What to make of the dreams

When discussing the meaning of these COVID-induced dreams, experts like Samson won’t interpret them, but he suggested trying to sort the dreams out instead.

“I think it’s really the emotional valence of the dream that’s the most important thing,” he said.

“What is the emotional experience, the feeling that you had when you wake up? That’s one of the most critical things and that’s telling you more about what’s going on internally than say, trying to figure out what symbols mean.”

4 tips to help ease you into a good night sleep

Samson wants people to sleep better, especially during these times. He suggests the following four tips to increase your quality of sleep:

1. Get outside to get sunlight

It is essential to make sure that you’re getting enough Vitamin D and natural sunlight during the day. He recommends eating lunch outside even when you’re engaging in social distancing because when you’re outside and you’re getting sunrays, it’s your body’s way to sync with its environment. (Meditation is also an awesome strategy!)

2. Have a routine

You’ll notice after a few weeks a habit starts to form and it will be easier to fall asleep. You’ll have less sleep latency — which is the time you try fall asleep, versus the time you actually fall asleep. And hopefully that will improve your overall sleep.

3. Turn off electronics

As soon as the sun goes down and you’re indoors, you want to turn those lights off, because if you’ve got blue lights beaming all throughout your house, and it’s going to stop Melatonin from producing.  Melatonin is the principal hormone that regulates sleep wave regulation.

4. Timing your meals

Eating tells your body that it’s time to be awake so if you want to improve your sleep, you’ll want to put that fork down at least three hours before bedtime. You don’t want to be eating within that three hour window because both you and your metabolism will be up all night.