Pandemic nightmares: Covid-19 stress may be causing rise in apocalyptic dreams, study says
More people are reporting nightmares and apocalyptic dreams amid the pandemic, according to a new study. This rise, which is tied to pandemic-related stress, is taking a higher toll on women than men, researchers have found.
Among the 811 participants involved in the study, 28.6% reported having disturbed sleep, and 26% had nightmares compared to the pre-pandemic period. "As could be expected, we observed a larger increase in the frequency of nightmares among respondents who also reported elevated stress during the lockdown," the researchers write in their study. They add that their findings do not prove that stress is causing nightmares -- but is only showing a connection.
"It was interesting to see recurring dream content, which echoed the apocalyptic atmosphere of the circumstances brought about by Covid-19," says Professor Anu-Katriina Pesonen, head of the Sleep and Mind research group at the University of Helsinki. "The findings enabled us to speculate that dreaming in the middle of exceptional circumstances is a form of shared mindscape between individuals," she adds.
Researchers from Finland and the US wanted to see how the Covid-19 lockdown affected what people saw in their dreams. So they used Artificial Intelligence to identify common nouns appearing in the dream reports of the participants. "The computational analysis carried out in the study is new to dream research," Pesonen notes. "Indeed, we hope to see more AI-aided efforts in the field in the future."
The AI identified dream patterns with links to the pandemic. "Themes such as failures in social distancing, coronavirus contagion, personal protective equipment, dystopia, and apocalypse were rated as pandemic-specific," the study authors write in their study. Overall, the research suggested 33 different clusters of similar dream patterns, including 20 bad dream ones. Of them, about 55% were related to the pandemic.
When they looked at the sleeping habits of the participants, they found that more than half of the participants reported having slept more than before and 10% found it harder to fall asleep. Those who experienced severe stress had dreams related to the pandemic. "A large proportion of the respondents had increased stress, which was associated with nightmares and sleep disturbances," the researchers write in their study.
Sleep disturbances and nightmares have links with depression and a range of other mental health problems, the researchers said, adding that impaired mental health could be a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Experts have not found the findings surprising, adding that strange dreams are widespread during a crisis. "Believe it or not, a relatively normal part of how we respond to stress," Jennifer Martin, a professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, tells NBC News.
Some nightmares might do us some good. "We speak about bad dreams, but maybe they also can be very good dreams," Pesonen tells Insider. "Sleep can foster learning processes, and we all have to learn new ways to behave socially." In other words, it could direct people to socially distance, wear a mask, disinfect, wash our hands, say experts
The study is published in the Frontiers in Psychology.