Our dreams reveal the escalating, suppressed anxiety spawned by COVID

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Credit: Kay Scanlon/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

We live day and night inside the same walls. We fear touching groceries that arrive at our doorstep. If we venture into town we wear masks, and we get anxious if we pass someone who is not. We have trouble discerning faces. It’s like living in a dream.

COVID-19 has altered our dream worlds, too: how much we dream, how many of our dreams we remember and the nature of our dreams themselves. Early this year, when stay-at-home directives were put in place widely, society quite unexpectedly experienced what I am calling a dream surge: a global increase in the reporting of vivid, bizarre dreams.

Dream reports from Brazilian adults in social isolation had high proportions of words related to anger, sadness, contamination and cleanliness. Text mining of accounts of 810 Finnish dreams showed that most word clusters were laden with anxiousness; 55 percent were about the pandemic directly (lack of regard for social distancing, elderly people in trouble).

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It seems clear that some basic biological and social dynamics may have played a role in this unprecedented opening of the oneiric floodgates. At least three factors may have triggered or sustained the dream surge: disrupted sleep schedules augmenting the amount of REM sleep and therefore dreaming; threats of contagion and social distancing taxing dreaming’s capacity to regulate emotions; and social and mainstream media amplifying the public’s reaction to the surge.

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