Stress, Trauma, and Sleep Changes: Here's What Is Causing Your Weird Dreams Right Now

Search Twitter and you'll come across the #pandemicdreams hashtag — which is exactly what it sounds like. Or, ask around: people are reporting strange, vivid (or both strange and vivid) dreams during this novel coronavirus pandemic, whether they're about the actual virus or not.

A fellow POPSUGAR editor told me that she rarely ever remembers her dreams. Ever since the end of February, though, she's been having (and remembering) the "weirdest" dreams. One, for example, involved her moving into wizard school with her current roommate and a best friend from college. She transported to and from her boyfriend's dorm using a map. Oh, and her boyfriend in this dream was Chilling Adventures of Sabrina star Gavin Leatherwood (aka, Nicholas Scratch).

In contrast, someone from my alma mater told me that she's had dreams — nightmares, really — where her lungs filled with fluid and she couldn't breathe. In these instances, she was dreaming about having COVID-19 specifically. They were so realistic that her partner, who was sleeping beside her, said he woke up while she was in the middle of one such dream and thought she was choking.

Deirdre Barrett, PhD, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, started collecting data about people's dreams in past weeks using a public survey. She told VICE that answers included loved ones getting sick or "hordes of flying bugs." (We don't know about you, but we'd much rather dream about Leatherwood than hordes of flying bugs.)

Why Do We Dream in the First Place?

Scientists aren't exactly sure why we dream, but there are a few theories that involve memory processing and the resetting of emotions. One early theory from Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA who later researched sleep, stated that dreams were a way to get rid of unneeded information. According to Rafael Pelayo, MD, sleep specialist at Stanford Sleep Medicine Center, while Crick would discourage analyzing your own dreams, psychoanalysts would disagree.

"Dreams are essentially memory consolidation and processing, but it's not straightforward," Joshua Tal, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist who works with patients experiencing sleep disorders like insomnia, told POPSUGAR. "So you might have something that reminds you of a feeling that you had, or you might have three people represented as one person, or it's kind of all over the place."

Dr. Pelayo noted, "There is this idea that in REM sleep we're transferring information from the hippocampus to the other parts of the brain, and the brain is resetting itself for learning the next day." Our thinking in REM sleep is less logical — the part of our brain that deals with logic, Dr. Pelayo told POPSUGAR, is less active (hence, the weirdness of our remembered dreams). Our dreams are more vivid during REM sleep, and Dr. Pelayo referenced early research from a leading sleep doctor, Bill Dement, which stated that if you woke someone out of REM, 80 percent of the time they reported a dream. Plus, the longer they'd been asleep, the more likely they were to remember.

Why Are People Having Weird Dreams Lately?

Explanation 1: Change in Sleep Patterns

Disruption of sleep may play a factor. According to data collected from 1,014 adults across the US by Sleep Standards, 48 percent of Americans stated that feeling anxious during the coronavirus pandemic was the main reason they were having trouble falling asleep, and 58 percent said they've lost at least one hour of sleep nightly compared to before the outbreak. Waking up during the night due to stress or, say, other causes such as alcohol — since people are reportedly drinking more — might result in waking up during a REM period and therefore remembering a dream. As Dr. Pelayo said, "Anything that makes your sleep choppy is also going to make you aware of your dreams more."

Another theory, as stated by the experts POPSUGAR spoke to, is that people are experiencing REM rebound. Katherine Sharkey, MD, PhD, medical director of the Brown Medicine Sleep Center, said that, on average, REM makes up about 25 percent of your nightly sleep (Dr. Pelayo agreed, citing the percentage range to be 20 to 25). The end of the night is made up of more REM sleep — REM sleep dominates the last third — and if you're waking up to go to work in the morning, you're cutting off that stage. This makes you REM deprived, Dr. Pelayo explained. When you start catching up on sleep, which is what some people are doing during this quarantine, there's an influx of REM, or REM rebound.

Quick fun fact: Dr. Tal said that certain substances are actually REM suppressants. Benzodiazepines, antidepressants, and marijuana, for example, can suppress this stage of sleep and therefore lead to REM rebound later on.

What's more, data collected by FitBit and published on April 2 suggests that people across the US are going to bed later but getting more sleep — aka, getting up later. That could be explained from the lack of commuting during this time. Since more REM happens the longer you sleep, people are waking up at a time where the content of a dream is getting transferred into longterm memory and can be remembered, according to Dr. Sharkey. (Note: for the most part, data also showed an improvement in quality of sleep and, according to FitBit, "for those whose quality of sleep has improved, they have been spending more time in deep and REM sleep.")

Explanation 2: Anxiety or Stress Due to Novel Coronavirus

Stress could very well be a factor, the experts we spoke to said. "When we're stressed out, we try to make sense of it, especially when things are so insane and out of the ordinary," Dr. Tal said. This could come about when you're asleep. He explained that people deal with something they're stressed about by exhibiting denial or becoming even more anxious about it as a means of coping. "Doing any of these things essentially means that you're avoiding processing the issue," he said. "You're avoiding talking through its effect. What ends up happening is you then start to see that if it's not processed in the daytime, it'll come out at nighttime."

Stress could also be causing the change in sleep schedule we discussed earlier. "We know that when you're under stress, you are more likely to have arousal from sleep across the board," Dr. Sharkey said. "And we know that having arousals around REM makes it more likely for you to remember what you've dreamed. Is somebody more likely to report that they're having a super intense dream under circumstances where they're feeling more stressed and emotional? Probably."

Dr. Sharkey referenced early morning awakenings, a concept associated with depression and anxiety. It's what it sounds like: people wake up early in the morning and can't go back to sleep. "Early morning awakenings can be common in stressful situations or in times where mood is not good, whether it's anxiety or depression," she explained. This interferes with your sleep and creates an opportunity to remember dreams if you wake up during REM — or, due to a lack of REM, can result in REM rebound the next night.

Woman sleeping
Getty | Nuca Lomadze / EyeEm

Explanation 3: Trauma

In the study, A Systematic Change in Dreams After 9/11/01, 44 people in the US who were already regularly writing down their dreams, provided the last 10 before 9/11 and the first 10 after 9/11. It was found that those after were more intense. This was measured by an increase in central image intensity, which the study defined as "an image that stands out by virtue of being especially powerful, vivid, bizarre, or detailed." Dreams of the actual incidents were not recorded, though there was a slight increase in dreams where people were attacked by someone or something frightening. None of the participants had close family members who died on 9/11 and none lived in Manhattan.

A similar study conducted by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center showed that, after 9/11, college students who recorded their dreams were twice as likely to have negative ones, and the more they watched news about the tragedy, the more of a chance they'd dream about the attacks. (Question for you: How often are you watching TV about the novel coronavirus pandemic?)

Dr. Barrett, that Harvard Medical School psychologist from earlier, told The New York Times that, as it pertains to novel coronavirus, "it's a stretch to say we're all being traumatized in the sense that psychology means." However, she does say that people on the frontlines could very well be experiencing traumatic events that lead to more realistic dreams.

Dr. Tal agreed and further explained to POPSUGAR, "When you have trauma, when you have people dying and you are there witnessing it or even supporting another worker who's witnessing and experiencing it, your mind sometimes cannot make sense of it, so it comes out in dreams and nightmares. . . . We may see that a lot of these people on the frontlines are going to have higher levels of nightmares and traumatic dreams that have to do with coronavirus or have to do with similar themes."

It's important to note that not everyone exhibits a PTSD response from trauma. In fact, only about eight percent of the US population will experience PTSD. Having nightmares doesn't mean that you have full-blown PTSD — nightmares are just one symptom of PTSD, while PTSD is a cluster of symptoms such as re-experience through a dream or flashbacks, hyperarousal, and avoidance. Also classified in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is nightmare disorder, repeated dreams that typically involve avoiding threats to survival. There are treatments for both, Dr. Tal said — image rehearsal therapy for chronic nightmares and cognitive behavioral therapy for full-blown PTSD — but nightmares during this pandemic doesn't mean you have either.

Interpreting Dreams During This Time: Is It a Good Idea?

"Your life is reflected in your sleep and your sleep is reflected in your life."

Even if your dream isn't about coronavirus, chances are it's related to what's going on in the world and the consequences of staying home, Dr. Pelayo said. That might explain why people are dreaming about showing up naked to their Zoom call, too-crowded grocery stores, or stocking up on sold-out items. That could also explain why people are dreaming about death or decay in general (i.e. dead mice appeared in a dream of mine a few weekends ago).

That fellow POPSUGAR editor I spoke to told me that though she's been done with school for three years, many of her recurrent dreams during this time are about it: doing a project, being a student in college again, or sitting in a high school classroom. This could be related to the fact that you're thinking about what it would be like as a student nowadays having virtual lessons and looking at a spiraling economy, Dr. Pelayo said.

That could explain, too, why one PR professional told me that she was having dreams about going out to the bars — most bars are still closed across the country. While in isolation from the rest of the world, she's thinking about getting back to a sense of normalcy. We might also add that Dr. Barrett studied dreams of 79 British officers who were prisoners of war between 1940 and 1942, as documented by Maj. Kenneth Hopkins. A consistent theme? Escape and activities that they missed (like large meals) while in captivity.

Dr. Pelayo said he often uses a phrase: "Your life is reflected in your sleep and your sleep is reflected in your life. It goes in both directions." But some dreams people are having recently really do seem unexplainable. For instance, another colleague of mine said she dreamed she had her splits down, though has never been close. What do splits have to do with coronavirus? Nothing. Then, there's a dream about zombie cream cheese, which I'd pay money to see.

Bottom line? The experts we spoke to have explained evidence-based connections between strange dreams we're having and the stress of the pandemic going on in the world around us, but interpreting your dreams is up to you. Dr. Tal said he doesn't think there's harm in trying to make sense of themL "I think you can learn a lot about yourself, and in some cultures, it can be symbolic or prophetic. So I would never tell people to shy away from it unless it's causing stress." He suggested keeping a dream journal but advised that if you're feeling very stressed during this time, talk about it and find support (like this list of free mental health services). Just know that whether you're dreaming about Gavin Leatherwood, zombie cream cheese, or getting sick, you're not losing it. The pandemic could very well be to blame.