Is the coronavirus pandemic giving you bad dreams? Here's why, and how to cope

With sleep disrupted and anxiety high, people are having nightmares about insects, elevators and supermarket dangers. Why won't this virus leave us alone, even in our sleep?

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
CNET freelancer Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, a journalist and pop-culture junkie, is co-author of "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? The Lost Toys, Tastes and Trends of the '70s and '80s," as well as "The Totally Sweet '90s." If Marathon candy bars ever come back, she'll be first in line.
Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
6 min read

Coronavirus, just let me sleep, please!

Ute Grabowsky/Photothek via Getty Images

My first coronavirus dream took me to Seattle's Sea-Tac airport. Not only was I about to board a plane at a time when travel was practically shut down, but I had no luggage and no idea where I was headed. Dream Me kept moving forward, and I found myself on the world's scariest airport escalator, an almost totally vertical metal stairway that chugged higher and higher like a one-person roller coaster. 

I felt a brief moment of relief when I realized I had my smartphone with me -- I'll call someone for help! -- and then it crumbled in my hand. My one way out was gone, and I was still heading straight up. Terrified, I jerked awake.

Dreams are often weird. Long before I could drive, I dreamed of being trapped behind a wheel in an out-of-control car, whizzing at top speed with no way to stop. But this airport escalator dream felt different -- vivid, real, blending fears unique to the coronavirus outbreak with the shocks and bumps of a regular nightmare. It left me feeling the virus had invaded even our collective imagination, taken up residence in our dreams.

I'm not alone. According to researchers, large numbers of people are reporting vivid, unsettling dreams right now. It probably shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, given that so many people are experiencing disrupted sleep due to increased worry and upended routines and habits. There's also a blurring of lines as people begin to use their bedrooms as home offices, which alters our mental association that the bedroom is a place for sleep. Then there's the lack of access to natural light as people stay indoors, and for some, increased alcohol use. All these affect our quality of sleep.

"In essence, our bodies are in a flight or fight response, which, as we know from watching any horror movie, is incompatible with sleep," said Jason Ellis, a professor of sleep science at England's Northumbria University and the director of Northumbria Sleep Research Laboratory. He and his colleagues recently published an article in the Journal of Sleep Research about practical tips for dealing with sleep problems during home confinement. He calls our unprecedented circumstances "the perfect sleep storm." 

That maelstrom, he said, is unlikely to increase the amount of dreams we actually have, but it's likely to increase the amount of dreams we remember. "The question," he said, "is, why is the content so weird?"

A website, I Dream of Covid, invites dreamers to describe and share just how weird their dreams are getting. 

The most common dreams

Elevator to nowhere

Sisters Erin and Grace Gravley, who live in the San Francisco Bay Area, started I Dream of Covid on March 26. More than 2,100 dreams have already been submitted, and Grace Gravley is illustrating the topics of the dreams sent in in small images included on the site. Readers can browse the dreams by location as well as theme, and there are definitely some recurring topics. Neither sister is trained in psychology or dream interpretation, Erin Gravley says, but they are interested in the narratives seen in the dreams, and the broad patterns developing.

"Some of the archetypes seem to predate the pandemic: water, teeth, storms, things like this," Erin Gravley said. "Others seem pandemic-specific: masks, handshaking, grocery stores, vaccinations."

My nightmare escalator may be unique to me, but its transport cousin, the elevator, shows up in a lot of dreams. Erin Gravley says she can guess why elevators are a common dream motif.

"Elevators seem easily associated with movement: up and down. Certainly in literature and film, there is a richness of symbolism when it comes to ascension and descent," she said. "However, it also occurs to us that elevators are confined, crowded spaces where the virus could easily spread."

Anxiety dreams vs. speculative dreams

The Gravleys divide dreams into two main categories: anxiety dreams and speculative dreams. Most are anxiety dreams, which is pretty self-explanatory.

"Often they are set in the present or near-present," Erin Gravley said. "The anxieties are most often around food, houses, crowds, safety of oneself and loved ones, rule-following, hygiene and touch." 

Speculative dreams, however, jump into the future, envisioning a world with changed fashions, regulations, and more, she added. "They speak to anxiety, still, but maybe a different sort."

The Gravleys are no strangers to such dreams. 

"I have had a few coronavirus dreams myself," Grace Gravley said. "Most of them are about being anxious that my mom will catch me not following the social distancing guidelines."

Creepy centipedes and helpful leeches

Deirdre Barrett, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University and editor-in-chief of Dreaming: The Journal of the Association for the Study of Dreams, is also collecting and analyzing dreams during the coronavirus outbreak.

"Some people are having quite explicit dreams of the virus," Barrett told me. "Others report more metaphoric ones, (with) bug dreams being the most common metaphor so far."

She doesn't mean "bug" as in "illness," but "bug" as in "insect." In one dream sent in to Barrett's survey, strange bugs, like centipedes, were released into the dreamer's room. But things didn't stop there.

"It was a game to try to find the bugs," the dreamer recalled, "but we could only find one single bug of many, so I was terrified to sleep until the other bugs were found."

Other metaphors suggest different threats. One person dreamed of a giant revolver in the sky, another dreamed of having to stop children from touching diseased cows. In one doozy, someone dreamed Oprah Winfrey was trying to kill them with a handheld circular saw. Occasionally, Barrett sees a positive COVID-19 dream -- in one, the dreamer discovered leeches cured the virus, and people were collecting them to treat the sick.

Other objects might fill in for the virus in many dreams, but those on the front lines of the illness have more literal and grim dreams, Barrett has found.

"Health care workers are dreaming about unsuccessfully intubating dying patients," she said. "Their dreams are much more literal and much more nightmarish."

Why do we even dream at all?

Dreaming is still a bit of a mystery, no matter what's going on in the world. 

"The exact reason why we dream at night is still a matter of debate," said Los Angeles-based psychologist Jennifer Martin. Martin, a member of the board of directors of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, says dreams help people process experiences they have during the day.

Most people dream every night, Martin says, and most dreaming occurs during the stage of sleep known as rapid eye movement sleep, or REM sleep. But we mostly forget our dreams.

"If someone woke you up during REM sleep, you would remember a dream," Martin said. Since that usually doesn't happen, "it's the rare exception" we actually remember our dreams.

As Ellis noted, we may not even be having more dreams, but sleep schedules disrupted by the coronavirus crisis allow us to remember them more. 

"We remember our dreams when we wake up during or shortly after them, and one of the other things that's happening right now is, people are having a hard time staying asleep," Martin said. 

With so many staying home for safety, many of our outlets for stress, such as exercise or sports, are restricted right now.

"Some of this is just a normal stress response," Martin says. With gyms closed and other stress-relieving events discouraged, "it's more likely that processing (the stress) might have to happen during our sleep," she said.

Avoid the doom scroll of bad news

If you're struggling with bad dreams, there are ways to minimize them. Martin says a consistent bedtime and wake time is important, as is thinking about the type of visual images you're exposed to right before bed. Avoid hunting on your phone for coronavirus news, for starters. Instead, Martin suggests, use the time before bed to tune out from the news. Read a book, watch a silly YouTube video, or flip through photos from your last vacation. 

But Ellis is unsure that preventing dreaming itself is the answer.

"Many people have asked me if we can stop these dreams," Ellis told me. "If we are using dreams to cope, then we should not stop having them, but rather, we should be preventing people from waking in the night and remembering them." 

And according to Ellis, our disrupted dreamscape is unlikely to change soon.

"I don't expect (dreaming and sleep disruption) to go back to normal for some time,"  he said.  "I think the psychological impact of this is going to be seen for quite a while."

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.