The Covid-19 pandemic is causing anxious, upsetting dreams in many people, especially women

  • The Covid-19 pandemic has altered what and how we dream
  • In recent studies, researchers found that anxiety-ridden and negative emotions have become part of many people's dreams
  • An interesting finding is that these kinds of dreams appear to affect women more than men

The Covid-19 pandemic is causing trauma in millions of people worldwide, and if that weren’t enough, it’s also reportedly infusing anxiety and negative emotions into our dreams.

This is according to researchers from the American Psychological Association, whose work was published in the journal Dreaming. The researchers noted that these kinds of dreams are affecting particularly women.

Their paper is based on the results of four global studies about people's dreams during the pandemic.

"All of these studies support the continuity hypothesis of dreaming: That dreams are consistent with our waking concerns rather than being some outlet for compensation, as some older psychoanalytic theories had hypothesised," said Dr Deirdre Barrett, editor of Dreaming and an assistant professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Barrett added: "The higher levels of anxiety, dreams about illness and death in general, and Covid-19 specifically, are in line with that."

Why women are being particularly affected

Barrett’s study, titled "Dreams about Covid-19 vs. Normative Dreams: Trends by Gender" drew its conclusions from an international study involving over 2 800 participants who were asked, in an online survey, to recount their dreams about the pandemic. Their responses were then compared to a database of responses to dreams from before the pandemic.

Women showed significantly lower rates of positive emotions and higher levels of anxiety, as well as sadness and anger, with death also being a factor in their pandemic dreams, compared with pre-pandemic dreams.

The recent studies suggest that women's dreams have been more strongly affected by the pandemic than men's, Barrett said, and explained that this could possibly be because of increased caregiving responsibilities during this time, along with bearing the burden of job loss and other hardships.

"Dreams can help us understand our emotional reactions to the pandemic," Barrett said. In one of Barrett’s studies, a mother dreamed that her child's school contacted her to inform her that the child's whole class was being sent to her condominium to be home-schooled for the duration of the pandemic. 

"When mothers of young children hear that dream, there is laughter but also usually a strong empathy at the overwhelmed feeling the dream dramatises.

"Your dreams can make you more aware of just what about the pandemic is bothering you the most – and sharing them with trusted others is a good conversation-starter for talking about these shared feelings," Barrett said.

Two other articles in the issue and what each one found

In addition to Barrett’s study, three other studies on dreams during the pandemic were also revelational.

In one study, titled "Dreaming and the Covid-19 pandemic: A survey in a US American sample", researchers looked at over 3 000 US adults surveyed in early May 2020.

They found that people who had been strongly affected during the pandemic, including those who had fallen ill or lost their job, reported the strongest effects on their dreams (such as negative and pandemic-related dreams).

The second study, "Dreaming in the Time of Covid-19: A Quali-Quantitative Italian Study", involved researchers analysing the dreams of 796 Italian participants, also via an online survey.

Overall, 20% of respondents reported their dreams to have an explicit reference to Covid-19, the researchers found, with women reporting higher emotional intensity and a more negative emotional tone in their dreams. The same was found in participants who knew people affected by Covid-19 disease.

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