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How Coronavirus is Changing the Way We Dream

Coronavirus is having some really interesting effects on our dreams. For example, new research has shown that we're recalling 35% more dreams on average, and that our dreams have become more vivid, emotional and bizarre. Today, I'm sharing a new video explaining what's going on with our dreams, why it's happening, and what you can do about it. I also talk about why this is a particularly interesting time for lucid dreaming.

If you'd like to share your own Coronavirus dream experiences, please leave a comment on YouTube or on my Facebook post about this video!

Video transcript:

COVID-19 is having a huge impact on the way that we live our lives during the day. However, it's also having some really interesting effects on our dreaming lives. In fact, if you're like most people, there's a good chance you've already noticed some changes to your dreams. And so today, I'm going to talk about what's going on with our dreams, why it's happening, and what you can do about it – especially if you, or someone that you know, is having distressing dreams or nightmares about COVID-19.

First of all, what's going on with our dreams?

Well, for one thing, we're recalling a lot more of them. A recent study has shown that on average, we're recalling about 35% more dreams each morning than we normally do. This study also showed a 15% increase in negative dreams, and it showed that all up, our dreams are more vivid, more emotional, and more bizarre.

We're also seeing many reports of direct references to COVID-19 in people's dreams. People are dreaming about things like wearing face masks, getting into fights at the local supermarket, being admitted to hospital, and in extreme cases, some people are dreaming that they're unable to breathe or that their friends and loved ones are getting sick and passing away.

The people that are being impacted the most with these kinds of dreams tend to be the people that are more directly affected by COVID-19 during the day. So, in particular, a lot of doctors and nurses and other frontline health care workers are having highly distressing dreams and nightmares about COVID-19.

In terms of content though, not all of these dreams are directly referencing COVID-19. One of the interesting things about this incredible shared global experience that we're having, is that it's a very intangible and abstract threat. It's not something you can see with the naked eye, and so we're also seeing a lot of dreams that metaphorically represent the threat we're facing.

One common example is an increase in dreams about vague shadowy figures chasing us. We're also seeing metaphors like insects being featured in dreams. But you might be asking, why insects of all things? Well, if you think about it, most people have a strong unconscious association between the word “bug” and pathogens like viruses and diseases. We often use the word “bug” to refer to both, as in, “you've caught a tummy bug” or something like that. And so, the unconscious mind is drawing on these meaning-links to represent the abstract and intangible threat that is COVID-19 in our dreams.

I've had dreams like this myself where, for example, a few nights ago I was ascending through the different floors of an infected medical facility with a team of people. There were zombies everywhere and different mutations of the virus. I'm not going to paint a picture of exactly what it was like, because it was quite distressing. But I did have insects featuring at one of the points in that dream, and it was quite a stressful dream. So, it's similar to what we're seeing a lot of other people reporting as well.

Why is this happening to our dreams?

Well, there's actually a few different explanations that bear on this. One of the simplest explanations is the idea of “day residue”. This is simply the phenomenon where we often dream about the kinds of things that we think about and do during the day. And so if you're exposing yourself to a lot of mainstream media, and if you're going out and seeing people doing social distancing and thinking about this, and talking about COVID-19 with friends, then it's only natural that these ideas would then be transferred into your dreams at night.

If we go one step further, we find a second explanation related to the actual emotional experience we’re having during the day. We know that dreams are important for regulating emotions that we have during the day, and we also know that more anxiety during the day tends to lead to more anxious dreams at night. So, a second explanation is that our dreams are helping us to regulate and manage the stressful emotions that many of us are experiencing during the day because of COVID-19.

If we go a third step further again, and think about the specific threat that we're facing, we find an interesting explanation in one of the most prominent theories of dreaming called the threat simulation theory. This theory says that the reason we evolved dreaming in the first place, was so that we could rehearse threatening situations in the safety of our dreams and practice our instinctual responses to them. The idea is that if we do this in a dream, then we're more likely to be successful when we actually have to deal with these threats in waking life.

To give you a concrete example, our ancestors probably would have had to deal with a lot of predatory animals, and so it makes sense to dream about running away or fighting back before you actually encounter them during the day. And you can imagine that people who did this – who had a tendency to dream about threatening situations – would have had a better chance of survival and would have then passed that on to their offspring. So, you can see how it would have been selected for through evolution.

Now, the thing with COVID-19 is that unlike running away from a predatory animal, again, it's an intangible and abstract threat. We can practice good hygiene, we can engage in social distancing, but if you actually get COVID-19, there's not really a lot that you can do except to look after yourself, get medical help, and hope that your body can fight off the infection. And so, this explains why some people are having looping, recurring nightmares about COVID-19. The mind is trying to simulate the threat and come up with a solution to it, but it's unable to find one.

This is actually similar to what we see in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). With PTSD, people often have recurring nightmares about the initial traumatic event. According to threat simulation theory, this is the mind simulating that threatening situation, but not being able to find a solution. And so, it gets caught in this loop, over and over again, replaying the trauma. So, there's three explanations for the kinds of dreams we're having. But what about the increase in our dream recall?

Well, keep in mind that we're having a lot of changes to our routines and to our sleeping patterns. Many people are able to sleep in a little bit longer in the morning because they don't have to rush off to work, especially if you're working from home. And so even if you're sleeping in an extra 15 or 20 minutes, you're going to be having substantially more dreams. The reason for this is that most of our dreams are actually concentrated near the end of the night. In fact, about 50% of our dreams happen in the last two hours, so if you're sleeping in, you're likely to have more dreams.

Furthermore, if you feel anxious and if you're having insomnia or disruptions to your sleep, then again, you're going to have more opportunities to recall your dreams. This is because when we wake up during the night, we have a chance to transfer our memories of the dreams we've had from short-term memory, where they're easily lost, over to long-term memory, where they become more durable. So, we're remembering a lot more dreams during these awakenings that would otherwise simply be forgotten.

What can we do about the effects of COVID-19 on our dreams?

Well, first and foremost – and I'm sure you've heard this already from other sources – it's really important to maintain all the same self-care and well-being enhancing things that you would normally do during the day. So, keep a balanced lifestyle, continue doing exercise, yoga, meditation, whatever it might be. Connect with your friends. Don't just saturate yourself with images of COVID-19, because again, this is likely to transfer into your dreams in the form of day residue. In contrast, if we have a balanced life where we're having a wide range of experiences, then our dreaming minds can draw on this and give us a much wider range of experiences during our dreams.

If you want to be a little bit more proactive with this, then you can actually deliberately give yourself ideas that you will hopefully dream about later in the night. I would say that after dinner time, avoid the news and don't think about COVID-19. Instead, think about the kinds of things you'd like to dream about. This is sometimes called dream incubation, where just before bed you imagine the kind of dream you would like to have. You can also do things like watching adventure films or reading fiction books about the sorts of dreams that, ideally, you would like to have.

Now, if you want to go a step further again in how proactive you are, you might consider learning lucid dreaming. This is actually a really excellent time to learn lucid dreaming, for a few reasons. Like I said before, dream recall is up by about 35% for the average person, and in my own research, I found that general dream recall ability is the strongest predictor of successfully learning lucid dreaming. So, the conditions are ripe for learning lucid dreaming right now.

We also have more time available, and many people are lacking in the experiences they can have during the day because they're stuck at home. Lucid dreaming gives you a chance to not only address nightmares and find more effective solutions to those situations, but it also allows you to have virtually any experience you want. So, if you're stuck at home, lucid dreaming can be a great way to expand your range of experiences and give you something to focus your mind on other than COVID-19.

If you want to learn how to have lucid dreams, I do have a video course and I'll put the link down in the description below in case you're interested (click here if you’d like to check it out).

The last thing that I would say is that if this is getting to a point with your dreams where it's actually impacting your life in a substantial way, you might want to consider talking to someone about it. Now, this could be reaching out for professional help from a counsellor or a psychologist, but it doesn't necessarily have to be. Even just talking to friends and family can be tremendously helpful.

Think about this: If you went for a walk, and you were chased and attacked by some vague shadowy unidentified person, probably the first thing you would do once you got over the shock, is you would want to call someone and talk about it, and be like, “hey I just had the most incredible, stressful thing happen to me, I don't think I'm really okay, can we chat about it?” However, if the exact same thing happened in your dreams, there's an expectation that we should just shrug that off and get on with the day – even if we wake up with a pounding heart, and a body that's flooded with cortisol and adrenaline.

Now, if you can move on from your stressful dreams then that's fine, but if you're finding that it is having a substantial negative impact on your life, don't be shy to reach out to someone and talk about it. You don't have to just keep it to yourself, and in fact, you’ll probably find that if you do call up a friend and say “hey look, I know it was a dream, but I had this experience and it's still with me, it's really stressing me out, is there any chance we can talk about it – I think it would really help”, then you will probably find it's a connecting experience. And I think that in these times, we can all do with a little bit more connection!

If you've had some interesting dreams yourself, I would love to hear about them! I invite you to share any interesting dreams or nightmares, or just anything else you've noticed about your sleep and dreams, on YouTube or on my Facebook post about this video. I'm going to personally respond to every comment that I see, and I think it would be really interesting to see what other people are experiencing.

Finally, if you've liked this video, please show it some love – like it, share it, comment – and I’ll look forward to seeing you in my next video!

Thank you for watching!

If you're interested in learning lucid dreaming, you can find out more about my Video Course here:


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