Looking back, Serena first noticed her dreams were becoming more vivid shortly after she started hearing the term "social distancing" get tossed around. Cooped up in her house and feeling increasingly worried about the growing threat of COVID-19, the 24-year-old began to notice that her dreams had begun following the same theme: She was sent somewhere safe, but then would start coming down with coronavirus symptoms. Those around her would become angry and force her to leave. "It's terrible," she told Refinery29.
Serena isn't alone. Many people are having unusually vivid and intense dreams right now. Even Chris Cuomo has talked about the phenomenon.
They tend to happen when we're feeling stressed and anxious, confirms Lisa Harrison, MA, psychotherapist in private practice and a candidate training as a Jungian analyst. Harrison and her colleagues are collecting dreams from people through a survey "to study the nature of current dreams arising during a time of global chaos and anxiety."
One factor fueling this particular type of dream is a change in our sleep cycles. "We are wired to stay awake in the face of danger,” explained Jennifer Martin, professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, to CNBC Make It. During a stressful situation, you may remain on high alert into the night, which could affect your normal sleep patterns.
Vivid dreams tend to happen during the rapid eye movement phase of sleep. If your ZZZs are disturbed due to stress, or even if you're sleeping more due to a quarantine-related change in schedule, you may be spending more time in REM sleep, leading to more, and more intense, dreams.
This isn't the first time people have began noticing a change in their dream lives in the midst of a collective trauma. A study conducted by the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center followed college students' dreams before and after the September 11 attacks. The findings: After 9/11, the participants were twice as likely to have negative and upsetting dreams, especially if they were watching a ton of news about the event.
"People's dreams can function as a measure of how much distress they are feeling and how well or poorly they are coping," Robert Stickgold, PhD, a sleep researcher in the Division of Psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and coauthor of the study, told ScienceDaily at the time.
The experts I spoke to agree: What's happening in our dreams is our inner psyche's way of trying to communicate with us. "The dream at the first level is related to you, the dreamer. How are you managing?" says Layne Dalfen, dream analyst and author of Have A Great Dream. "What is it about the world event that's impacting you personally?"
"Each of us is handling it differently, but we're all dreaming the same darn thing," continues Dalfen. "I'm helping dreamers get in touch with what they can learn for themselves from their own dreams."
She adds, "If you're having feelings about [coronavirus], you might not be expressing the full thrust of how you're managing. Whatever it is that you're holding in, the antidote is in the nightmare or the recurring dream."
In his study, Stickgold said that you can infer how well you're processing a traumatic event by looking at your dreams. "If, in your dreams, you are still seeing specific traumatic images... then it means that these stressful events are not being adequately processed," he explained. In other words, when Serena dreamt that she was developing COVID-19 symptoms and being ostracized as a result, that's a red flag for ongoing stress. "If you’re seeing tangential events in your dreams, it indicates that your brain is trying to make sense of the trauma and that you are coping successfully," he adds. If Serena's dreams shift to scenarios where she comes down with something other than COVID-19, for instance, or winds up in a hospital but isn't sick herself, that could be a sign that she's moving on.
Just knowing that this phenomenon is normal — and right now, shared by many around you — can begin to put your mind at ease. But Harrison recommends starting a dream journal to figure out what your brain is trying to tell you.
"One of the hard parts about dreams is that they don’t speak our language," she explains. Writing down your dreams and even sketching out the images you're seeing can lead to a better understanding of how you're dealing with a situation, and what you can do to ease the stress and anxiety you might be feeling. Yes, even during a global pandemic.