People Having More Vivid Dreams Right Now May Be Struggling More With COVID Stress
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
How much can your dreams really tell you about your inner world?
Since the pandemic began, many people have been reporting more vivid dreams. And recent research suggests we may be able to glean important information about our mental health from our dream patterns.
A recent study published in the Dreaming journal found the people experiencing the most dramatic changes to their dream life are those who are under the most pandemic-related stress. That means the degree to which your dreams have become more negative or easier to recall in recent months could be a useful indicator of how your mental health is doing right now.
What your dreams can tell you about your mental health.
Researchers asked 3,031 U.S. adults about their dream patterns back in May, as well as how COVID-19 has affected their lives personally. Nearly 1 in 3 people reported an increase in dream recall due to COVID-19, and 15% reported more negative dreams.
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Most strikingly, the people who'd had the most pronounced changes in their dreaming—including having more upsetting dreams than usual and remembering more dreams than usual—were the people who'd been most intensely affected by the pandemic.
"The people whose dream lives have been most negatively affected are also those who have been personally affected on a physical level (either they or a significant other caught the virus), on a social level (suffering from the social restrictions), and/or a mental level (depression, anxiety, etc.)," Michael Schredl, Ph.D., and Kelly Bulkeley, Ph.D., the dream researchers behind the study, explain in the paper on their findings. "This shows that changes in dreaming can help to identify those persons who may be suffering the most due to the pandemic."
In other words, the more negative or vivid a person's dreams have been lately, the more likely it is that this person is particularly struggling with the effects of COVID, whether because of loneliness, loved ones getting sick, job loss, or other challenges.
"These findings support the notion that changes in the frequency, tone, and contents of dreaming can help identify specific people who may be most at risk for mental health problems during the pandemic," the researchers explain.
How to use this dream intel.
We know this pandemic has brought with it a massive mental health crisis, so it's important for all of us to be attuned to our inner worlds and emotional well-being.
The results of this study suggest a person's dreams may be one potential tell that they're struggling. Meaning, if you or someone you love has been having a lot more nightmares or stressful dreams, it's worth pausing to check in on how you or they are doing overall.
The researchers also suggest there's a way to use our dreams as a simple, practical way to support our mental health. "Talking about dreams enables the expression of complex feelings, memories, and concerns that cannot be easily articulated in other ways," they explain. "In describing a distressing dream, the individual creates an externalized version of the experience, which allows for a more reflective response to its frightening contents."
That reflection can have a cathartic effect, they add. So consider starting a simple dream practice with a partner or friend, or start a dream journal you can share with a loved one or trusted care professional. If you find that you're struggling to cope with everything going on right now, reach out to someone who can help.