Coronavirus infecting majority of bad dreams: Many having social distancing nightmares

HELSINKI, Finland — Many people will likely tell you the coronavirus pandemic has turned 2020 into a nightmare. A new study finds that statement is more accurate than you might think. Researchers in Finland say a majority of the bad dreams people are having this year are now related to COVID-19.

A team led by researchers from the University of Helsinki reveals the virus is overtaking all other themes when it comes to a person’s nightmares. Study authors say this may even suggest the global pandemic is causing people to share their anxiety with others.

“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,” says lead author Dr. Anu-Katriina Pesonen in a media release. “The idea of a shared imagery reflected in dreams is intriguing.”

Pesonen adds that many participants in their study are having similar dreams, focusing on the “apocalyptic ambience” of the coronavirus lockdown.

What are people dreaming about?

Finnish researchers gathered sleep and stress data from over 4,000 people starting in the sixth week of that country’s lockdown. More than 800 also talk about the dreams they’re having; revealing tremendous anxiety about the crisis.

After transcribing the dreams into lists of words, researchers used an artificial intelligence algorithm to compile a group of themes appearing in the dreams. Pesonen and her team call these themes dream clusters, which AI forms out of “smaller dream particles” instead of analyzing a person’s entire dream.

In total, 33 dream clusters were created from these word associations. Researchers say 20 of these themes fall into the nightmare category and 55 percent are specific to the pandemic. These bad dreams revolve around failures in social distancing, personal protective equipment (masks), the COVID-19 virus, dystopia, and apocalyptic outcomes during lockdown.

Many of the disturbing themes were born out of word pairings the study labeled as “Disregard of Distancing.” These include combinations like mistake-hug, hug-handshake, distancing-crowd, crowd-restriction, and crowd-party.

“The computational linguistics-based, AI-assisted analytics that we used is really a novel approach in dream research,” says Pesonen, the head of the Sleep & Mind Research Group at the University of Helsinki. “We hope to see more AI-assisted dream research in future. We hope that our study opened the development towards that direction.”

Stress and sleep are a bad combination

The study also finds the pandemic is changing how people sleep, with much of the change due to stress. More than half of the participants say they’re sleeping more during quarantine. Over a quarter of this group however, says they’re having nightmares more frequently. Another 10 percent are having a hard time falling asleep at night.

The results show more than half the respondents reported increases in their stress levels. Researchers say this isn’t surprising since stress has a strong link to broken sleep and bad dreams. Those who were the most stressed out during the study also reported having more pandemic-related dreams. When it comes to the psychological toll COVID is having on the world, Pesonen says sleep is a key factor in all mental health issues.

“Repeated, intense nightmares may refer to post-traumatic stress,” the researcher explains. “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.”

The study appears in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

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