Back in high school, I had a recurring dream at least once a week. In it, I would walk from one random room to another, and in each room was a new setting and a new cast of people. For example, I would walk out of a foosball competition in my grandmother’s living room and into a graduation party taking place in a McDonald’s. And then onto the next scene, over and over again until I finally woke up. The rooms changed through the nights, with the specific combination of set and cast rarely repeating. When I asked my therapist at the time why I kept having the dream, mostly as a rhetorical question out of annoyance, her theory was that it was an anxiety response, a stress dream — my brain trying to prepare itself for every possible scenario.
While that explained the madlib nature of the dreams, it was never a satisfying answer for me because my anxiety dreams have been the same since I was a small child. Now, having spent years interested in dreams and neuroscience, I assume that it was likely just a streak of remembering. I woke up and the dream was familiar, so I remembered it more, and thus the cycle repeated.
While there is no definitive answer, there are many theories and studies that discuss what dreams mean and where they come from. Current theories propose that dreaming is a process designed to preserve the neurological function of the brain and promote cognitive development.
Another theory states that dreams are nothing more than a result of unconscious brain activity. These neurological results merit study. After all, the average person will spend an accumulated six years of their life dreaming.
Not everyone remembers their dreams, and nobody remembers all of their dreams. Some dreams regularly occur for people when they’re stressed out, sometimes casts from various dreams will reappear in another, or a dream will become serialized over many nights. Dreams are fickle creatures.
The pandemic has impacted the sleeping world just as it has the waking one. Studies show that people are having more nightmares, and more vivid dreams. Studies also show that there was an increase of an estimated 31-50% in sleep problems between mid 2021 and 2019. It’s probable that these issues are connected. Dreams, regardless of which theory you subscribe to, relate to our external circumstances and our active lives. If you have been having altered dreams for the past few years, it is likely a side effect of increased stress and pressures, outside of the pandemic alone. Personally, my strange dream from high school has not returned, but my classic stress dreams have become far more frequent than before.
For many, dreams are a fun experience, and if that’s the case I recommend keeping a journal of some kind, in which you can record your dreams after you wake up. Establishing a routine will help you remember dreams in the future and likely increase the vividness of them. In the case of my recurring high school dream, it’s hard to say if I was actually having it more often, or if I only remembered it more because I took the time to record it.
If you are one of the many people whose dreams have been impacted for the worse during COVID-19, there are things that can help. Research suggests that relieving stress and tension in the daytime (or right before bed) might alleviate the pressure of your brain to deal with this stress while you sleep. Exercising, meditating, or doing a hobby you enjoy before sleep can also help.
Setting a routine for bedtime can help, too. For some people this looks like having a warm beverage before bed, for others it’s reading. Personally, I play Animal Crossing, although I know electronic devices are not recommended before bed. Not only does having a routine seem to help ward off negative dreams, it promotes healthier sleep, leaving you feeling better rested. Ultimately, it’s about finding the strategy that works for you, something that may take trial and error. If you’re struggling with distressing dreams, hopefully you can take some solace in the fact that you’re not alone.