Pandemic anxiety causing vivid dreams, expert says

The anxiety caused by the new virus, coupled with the unprecedented social response to its spread, is leading to vivid, sometimes frightening dreams, one expert says.

'We've never been in this situation before. We've never had to face this,' says psychology professor

Poor sleep quality caused by increased anxiety related to the COVID-19 pandemic is partly to blame for vivid dreams and nightmares, a University of Ottawa psychology professor says. (Maridav/Shutterstock Images)

Living through the COVID-19 pandemic — and all of the worries and stress that comes along with it — is causing many people to have vivid dreams that bring their worst fears to life.

The Twitter hashtags #pandemicdreams and #covidnightmares are filled with stories of peculiar and frightening dream scenarios.

Getting lost in a crowd of people who constantly bump into you and spread their germs. Being attacked while trying to buy sanitizer. Arriving late for an important Zoom video chat meeting. 


That people are dreaming of these things is no surprise given the anxiety caused by a new, contagious virus and the unprecedented social response to its spread, one expert says.

"We've never been in this situation before. We've never had to face this," University of Ottawa psychology professor Nafissa Ismail said in an interview on All In A Day.

"No one understands it, so we're confused and lost and scared and worried." 

Ismail said poor sleep quality caused by increased anxiety and stress related to the COVID-19 pandemic is partly to blame for the vivid dreaming.

While people dream every night, Ismail said they don't always remember their dreams. The better you sleep, the less you remember in the morning, Ismail said.

"Every night when we go to bed our brain continues to work and it consolidates everything that we have seen and thought about during the day," said Ismail. "But because usually we sleep better, we don't really remember what we dreamt about during the night."

Virus news, fears causing stress

Studies show that the subject matter of dreams is influenced by the processing of memories and information taken in during the day.

Ismail said that because much of the the information people are consuming these days is about the spread of the virus and the economic difficulties it's caused, many are feeling anxious and stressed out. 

"Everyone has different sources of worry [but] they all are related to COVID-19 and the pandemic," said Ismail.

Combine that with personal fears about family members or loved ones getting infected, and you have a toxic brew that can easily cause nightmares.

Ismail said the best thing to do is to try and relax before bed so that your cortisol levels come down, which can help to ensure a calm and deep sleep.

"We have to try to manage our stress level a little bit so that we're able to sleep better," said Ismail.

"If we're not sleeping well, ultimately it's going to end up affecting our physical health and our mental health, and we don't know how long we're going to be in this situation."

With files from CBC Radio's All In A Day

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