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COVID-19 nightmares: U of T researchers on how ‘coronaworries’ affect your sleep

The impact of the pandemic on our dreams
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Students reported dreaming more vividly during the pandemic. SAMANTHA YAO/THE VARSITY
Students reported dreaming more vividly during the pandemic. SAMANTHA YAO/THE VARSITY

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a source of anxiety for many. For some, this stress has reached the point where their dreams are affected.

From Italy to the United States, researchers all over the world sought to understand the effects of COVID-19 on dreams, including a team at the University of Toronto. Graduate students Leela McKinnon, Erica Kilius, and Noor Abbas at UTM, alongside anthropologist David Samson, studied COVID-19 dreams among U of T’s student population from June to September.

Not only did the study’s participants report a change in their dreaming patterns, they also described dreaming more vividly and having more nightmares. One third of participants said they had dreamt about COVID-19, specifically. The researchers also found that friends, family, and loved ones are playing more prominent roles in dreams. 

Their research provided the basis for further exploration as they looked for unifying characteristics across the dreams of a globally dispersed student population — a question, according to Abbas, that could be tested against ‘threat simulation theory,’ an ominously named evolutionary theory of why we dream.

Threat simulation theory

The threat simulation theory proposes that dreams are a way to simulate stressful or risky situations without fear of bodily harm or death. The subconscious mind uses dreaming as a safe place to practice dealing with stressors. 

Since the pandemic began, the general risk level one experiences has risen considerably which allows for the threat simulation theory to be tested. “So far, our project shows preliminary support for this prediction and with females in particular demonstrating significantly more aggressive content in their dreams compared to baseline measures in dream content,” wrote Abbas in an email to The Varsity

“As once stated by Professor Samson, this indicates to us there may be some biological sex differences in threat perception,” she continued. 

Other studies have replicated these results — it appears that women’s brains are more affected than men’s. Dr. Deirdre Barrett, an assistant professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, suggests this happens “because women are bearing more of the burden of caregiving, job loss, and other hardships.” 

The U of T researchers noted that approximately 73 per cent of participants “reported that their dreams had changed during the COVID-19 pandemic,” and that “many dreams described by participants carried negative emotions, including feelings of confusion, anxiety, fear and sadness.” Fear was the highest participant observation and sadness was the lowest.

The project began in June, after U of T Global’s Student Engagement Award approved the proposal and funded its research. Early tasks included hiring an artist who could illustrate the findings and calling for students to participate. 

“The last few weeks prior to deadline submission [were] concerned with preparing final deliverables: such as the art pieces, presentation of qualitative results, and engaging infographics,” wrote Abbas. The project lasted a total of three months, ending on September 4, when the project was due.

Dreams as therapeutic tools

This research project shed some light on the wider implication of dreams and nightmares. “There is an emerging area of research primarily concerned with using dreams in therapy,” wrote Abbas. 

“The idea here is that dreams are used to facilitate some introspective problem-solving ability by using imagery rehearsal treatment.” This area of research is called ‘dream work’ or ‘dream therapy.’ In addition, this research can be used to help people “practice stressful events” through  threat simulation theory. 

Abbas provided the example of public speaking: if an individual has to speak at a big event, they could have a dream where it all goes wrong a few nights before as a way to rehearse that potential outcome. 

Of all the research project participants, 49 per cent said that they “[believed] dreams [could] help a person make decisions about their life.” Perhaps this belief, alongside the threat simulation theory, is why many people believe dreams are glimpses of the future. 

When asked whether or not dreams were prophetic, Abbas was hesitant. “It’s too early to say if our research project shows that dreaming helps us accurately predict tomorrow’s events… It could be that, rather, dreaming simulates probable events, and this is often conflated with dreams being able to tell the future.”

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on sleep schedules. People find themselves spending more time in bed now that commuting has become less frequent, and meetings can take place in the comfort of the home. Time spent in bed allocates more time for dreams and thus more potential for nightmares. Be sure to seek help if the dreams or anxiety becomes too much to handle alone.