How To Interpret And Manage Your Pandemic Dreams

Dream experts share how to interpret and manage your nightly visions.

I was roller-skating in a Montreal hockey arena last week, while Céline Dion judged me from the sidelines for not wearing a mouthguard. Over the Easter weekend, archaeologists threatened me with swords unless I helped them dig up dinosaur bones for the Pope.

A totally real, absolutely factual discovery I made while social distancing. Sure, let's go with that. 
A totally real, absolutely factual discovery I made while social distancing. Sure, let's go with that. 

Unless the Canadian icon is taking a break from inspiring quarantine masterpieces and the Vatican is suddenly into fossil-collecting, both occasions obviously didn’t actually happen weird dreams are the new ordinary for myself and countless others, ever since the COVID-19 pandemic started.

People have puzzled over the strange phenomenon, with the Twitter account @IDreamofCOVID socializing dreams that speak to life under lockdown.

An informal HuffPost Canada callout for dreams got nocturnal visions from Canadians both mundane and bizarre. Peterborough, Ont., mom Marcia Steeves has been dreaming of meetups with former classmates and visiting their favourite hangouts.

“Our old teachers would wave from afar, it made us all feel warm and safe,” she told HuffPost Canada.

The pandemic’s timeline has affected nightmares too. In a direct message on Twitter, one dreamer from Saskatoon noted that theirs became vivid when locals started panic-buying toilet paper. A Toronto-based author’s nightmares were funny once he woke up, such as the imaginary fright he got when his house was trashed by partiers.

But as Ontario’s state of emergency continues, he’s been more troubled by dreaming.

“The most distressing one was about being in Honest Ed’s, repeatedly touching my own face and getting upset at myself,” he told HuffPost Canada.

Others have found themselves dreaming of former stressors, like 31-year-old Ottawa resident Kayla Spagnoli. She’s been having nightmares five times a week about her former job as an embalmer, plagued by imaginary bodies piling up and her calls for help going unanswered.

“I’m trying to sort and casket bodies upon bodies,” she told HuffPost Canada. “So who’s going to do pick-up at the morgue? I’m trying to problem-solve and nobody’s answering.”

Bad dreams run rampant in the minds of many Canadians coping with the pandemic.
Bad dreams run rampant in the minds of many Canadians coping with the pandemic.

Experts shared with HuffPost Canada likely reasons for the spike in vivid dream recall, as well as how to interpret what you see at night and manage them should nightmares become too distressing. If you’re among the fitful sleepers, here’s what you should know about dreaming during a pandemic:

Sleep cycles, stress and late-night vices may play a role

Data is still emerging on pandemic dreaming, but early small-scale U.S. studies suggest the pandemic has caused more vivid dreaming and poor sleep quality: A YouGov poll of more than 2,400 Americans found that nearly 30 per cent of respondents say their vivid dreaming has increased, and a SleepHelp survey found that one in five adults have been getting less sleep because of COVID-19.

The jury’s still out on why exactly we’re dreaming more vividly, but several dream experts have shared theories to explain the phenomenon.

One commonly accepted theory? We’re not having more weird dreams, but we are remembering them more. Scientific evidence has shown that we’re more likely to remember dreams that occur during the rapid eye movement (REM) cycle of sleep, which occurs right after the stage of deepest sleep. Because of this, both those who are sleep-deprived and trying to pay back their sleep debt because of a quieter schedule, as well as those who are sleeping in, may be prone to vivid dreaming, the New York Times reports.

“Many of us are not being woken by an alarm right now. When you wake up without disturbance, the chances of recalling a dream also improve,” Montreal Gestalt counsellor Layne Dalfen told HuffPost Canada.

Another line of thinking points the finger at crisis-related stress. New York City neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez told HuffPost Canada that the subconscious is where the brain processes emotions and thoughts through memory associations.

Watch: How stress affects REM sleep. Story continues below.

Being in a crisis situation with uncertainty around when it will end would certainly give our minds plenty of overwhelming emotions that need processing.

“Our brains are going to places our conscious minds may not allow us to delve into while we are awake … When we are in REM sleep, [there’s a] confluence of all the anxiety and fears we might try to suppress during our waking hours,” she said over email.

Hafeez also points out that substances people may be using to cope such as drinking alcohol before bed to fall asleep faster actually disturbs one’s REM cycles.

“The body does something called ‘REM rebound’ as a means of compensation. It is in this phase that dreams become more intense,” she added.

How to interpret your pandemic dreams

Leading scholars like Harvard Medical school assistant professor Deirdre Barrett are collecting COVID-19 dreams for analysis. She told Vice that many have shared nightmares involving insects, from finding worms to encountering swarming bugs.

Others are bringing social distancing measures into their dreams, or are terrorized by nightmares of the virus personally affecting them or their loved ones.

While dreams like these might be helpful to take at face value ― worrying about COVID-19 all day would likely translate to those worries manifesting at night ― science has yet to definitively prove that what we see in our dreams speaks to anything concretely, with some neuroscientists theorizing that dreams are just by-products of memory storage processes conducted by our brains. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t carry meaning based on how we feel about them.

“You have a worldview and I have a worldview. Every night we change that world view slightly but significantly, depending on what happens during the day. That is an important function of dreaming,” American psychiatrist Allan Hobson told South China Morning Post, to explain how the emotional meaning of dreams are significant from a survival standpoint.

Dalfen emphasizes there’s no one-size-fits-all dream dictionary that can interpret every fantastical image, as what you see in a dream is unique to your life experience. But if you’re hoping to get insight into a recurring feature in a dream or want to pinpoint what daytime anxiety you may be ignoring, it might be emotionally helpful to decode a dream.

Using six “points of entry,” Dalfen says dreamers can figure out what aspect of a dream resonates most strongly with their waking self: how you feel during it, what action occurs, the plot of the dream, repeating patterns in the dream, symbols and wordplay. From there, a dreamer can draw their own conclusions and potentially address any real-life anxieties they have. For example, a recent client told Dalfen she dreamt of being in Target and found the store choice interesting when she was awake, as she had felt “targeted” since the pandemic started.

How you interpret a dream will depend on how you feel about certain symbols, people, patterns or memories that take place in it.
How you interpret a dream will depend on how you feel about certain symbols, people, patterns or memories that take place in it.

For many, thinking about how they feel about a dream’s imagery has helped them process real-life worries. Spagnoli says she believes her embalming nightmares come from a place of guilt, as that’s how she feels both when she’s asleep and when she’s awake, thinking about not being on the front lines. Understanding that concern has helped her work towards alleviating her guilt.

“I’ve talked to people I trust [about feeling guilty], including my twin,” she said.

If your vivid dreams have been about mundane tasks like going to work or commuting, Hafeez says this may be because our brains are nostalgic for when times were better.

Steeves realized that how safe she felt in her schoolyard memories was a sign she was nostalgic for feeling like an invincible youth again. For her, it was helpful to look at how school was a symbol of security.

“Our teachers and the buildings represent the securities of our childhood that we are all yearning for right now,” the mom wrote to HuffPost Canada over Twitter.

Dr. Hafeez’s sleep routine for better dreaming

Drawing on her neuropsychology background, Hafeez shared a nighttime routine that may help reduce the likelihood of having a pandemic-related nightmare.

  • Don’t drink alcohol: This includes other stimulating substances like sugar, caffeine or narcotics before bedtime.

  • Unplug from bad news: Consuming grim COVID-19 updates non-stop can be detrimental to one’s mental well-being, which the neuropsychologist says can lead to anxiety that your psyche may need to address.

  • Use a calming ritual: A wellness or guided meditation app is an easy way to build relaxation into your routine, Hafeez notes. Other calming rituals might include making your sleep schedule more consistent, using soothing scents Spagnoli recommends lavender — light stretches, low-intensity yoga poses, and writing what you’re grateful for in spite of the pandemic. Reducing technology use can reduce stress, too.

Read: Eight ways to create a relaxing reading nook. Story continues after the slideshow.

8 Ways To Create A Relaxing Reading Nook
  • Watch or read something happy: Hafeez recommends capping off your night with something funny or uplifting.

  • Keep a dream journal: It may be helpful to track recurring patterns in dreams or nightmares, as externalizing a dream can help process it and make nightmares less scary.

If your nightmares are consistently waking you up in the middle of the night because of how disturbing they are, or if they start affecting how you function during the day, Hafeez recommends seeking professional help. Ongoing vivid nightmares can be a symptom of PTSD or another mental disorder; Spagnoli, a longtime nightmare sufferer, says antidepressants and therapy for borderline personality disorder have equipped her to better handle pandemic-related bad dreams.

The bottom line is, if your pandemic nightmares are leaving you overly distressed, “it’s time for you to schedule a virtual consultation with a mental health professional, like your therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist,” Hafeez advised. “We can’t really control our dreams.”