Pandemic Anxiety Turning Dreams into Nightmares, Study Shows

(CN) — For many, the Covid-19 pandemic has turned 2020 into a metaphoric nightmare. Now, scientists in Finland have found that the novel coronavirus is also a literal bad dream, with pandemic imagery appearing in a majority of reported bad dreams.

In a paper published Thursday in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, researchers compiled data from nearly a thousand respondents describing their dreams during the Covid-19 lockdown. Among those, 55% reported bad dreams consisting of pandemic-specific images and content.

Themes such as failures in social distancing, coronavirus contagion, personal protective equipment, dystopia and apocalypse appeared across multiple reports, including images such as mistakenly hugging another person, being caught in a crowd and being unable to shake hands.

“We were thrilled to observe repeating dream content associations across individuals that reflected the apocalyptic ambience of Covid-19 lockdown,” said lead author Anu-Katriina Pesonen, head of the Sleep & Mind Research Group at the University of Helsinki. “The results allowed us to speculate that dreaming in extreme circumstances reveal shared visual imagery and memory traces, and in this way, dreams can indicate some form of shared mindscape across individuals.”

The research team crowdsourced sleep and stress data from more than 4,000 people during the sixth week of the Covid-19 lockdown in Finland. About 800 respondents also contributed information about their dreams during that time — many of which revealed a shared anxiety about the pandemic.

Researchers used computational linguistics-based, AI-assisted analytics to find patterns in the reports of dream narratives and images. The team transcribed the content of the dreams from Finnish into English word lists and fed the data into an AI algorithm, which scanned for frequently appearing word associations. 

The computer built what the researchers called dream clusters from the “smaller dream particles” rather than entire dreams. And from the dream clusters, a pattern of themes and images emerged.

“The idea of a shared imagery reflected in dreams is intriguing,” Pesonen said.

The study also offered some insights into the sleep patterns and stress levels of people during the pandemic lockdown. For instance, more than half of respondents reported sleeping more than before the period of self-quarantine, though 10% had a harder time falling asleep and more than a quarter reported more frequent nightmares.

Not surprisingly, more than half of study participants reported increases in stress levels, which were linked to patterns like fitful sleep and bad dreams. Those who reported feeling the most stressed-out also had more pandemic-specific dreams. This research could provide valuable insights for assessing the toll the coronavirus is having on mental health.

“Repeated, intense nightmares may refer to post-traumatic stress,” Pesonen explained. “The content of dreams is not entirely random, but can be an important key to understanding what is the essence in the experience of stress, trauma and anxiety.”

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