Vivid, stressful quarandreams cause morning anxiety, confusion with reality

A girl being haunted be her stressful dreams.
(Mariana Duran • The Student Life)

They’re funny, they’re freaky and they happen when you’re sleepy. In waking moments, we take precautions against the coronavirus — but what do you do if you’re asleep?

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Olivia Hewitt PZ ’21 only remembered fragments of her dreams. But the pandemic brought her dreams to life — especially stress dreams. 

In one, Hewitt found herself at a carnival on a beach at night, surrounded by a crowd. 

“What was so interesting was I think that pre-COVID, it would have been a super happy dream — I’m at a carnival at the beach with all these people; it’s great,” she said. “But during COVID, it was distinctly a stress dream. I was in the middle of this crowd; no one was wearing masks, and I was running around feeling stressed, feeling guilty, feeling all these panicky emotions.”

Interpersonal and everyday life dreams also became prominent for Helen Landau SC ’24. 

Before her lockdown lifestyle began when she returned home from her gap year, Landau spent her dreams in fantastical lands or dramatic, unrealistic scenarios. 

“But now, I feel like I remember a lot of my dreams more often, and a lot of them have to do with real-life things that are very normal, like Zoom calls,” she said.

Instead of running away from a bear, fearing for her life, she’ll face a girl insulting her, for instance. 

Landau said she experiences negative dreams more often and has heard others say their dreams are more vivid, too. It seems to be a trend: Due to the pandemic, negative dreams have increased by 15 percent and dream recall by 35 percent among participants in an ongoing study conducted by the Lyon Neuroscience Research Center

In fact, Landau’s lifelike pandemic dreams sometimes cause her to confuse dreams with reality, a new phenomenon for her.

“There will be a point in the day sometimes where I’ll try to corroborate a detail from what I think is reality with actual reality, and then I’ll realize I had a dream,” she said. “That’s when the memories from the dream will come back to me.”

Even small details make a difference. When Landau walked into the kitchen one morning, the full bowl of pears surprised her — they had all been eaten in her dream. 

“It’s like, ‘Was this in a dream? Is this a real memory? Is this a real conversation I had with someone?’” she said. “There’s more of that overlap, because normally, if my dreams are about really abstract things, there’s not something in my life that would trigger me to remember it.”

For Sophie Hubbell PZ ’20, lifelike dreams are nothing new, but the pandemic has led to more stressful dreams and introduced new anxieties. Hubbell often remembers their dreams in incredible detail, but COVID-19-specific dreams are especially memorable. 

“I remember them more because it’s like a sign of the times,” they said. “Like, ‘Oh, I’m having these dreams because this is happening right now in my life, not just a random thing.’”

These dreams center on mask use and large groups, such as those at a music festival, and frequently involve the feeling of being trapped.

Masks and feeling trapped are also dream themes for Scripps College writing associate Adam Novy, whose dreams usually occur in the same old maze-like apartment. Because of the pandemic, this enclosed space introduces new fears.

At first, the situation will seem “hunky-dory,” but then he’ll suddenly realize the strangers surrounding him are maskless.

“I become really afraid of the imminence of death,” Novy said. “But the anxiety isn’t overwhelming. If I realized that no one was wearing a mask indoors right now, I would run the fuck out. But in the dream, I don’t really do that. In the dream, there’s this weird gluey passivity.”

He attributed this to the repressed nature of dreams.

“Dreams are like a kind of repression. They’re not the thoughts; they’re the thoughts dressed up in costumes,” Novy said. “They don’t defy repression; they enact it. But they enact it in a code, and if you can figure out the code, you can know what you’re repressing.”

In this sense, the brain burns off repressed anxiety through these pandemic dreams, he said. According to USA Today, he’s right: Dreams serve to process emotions, especially emotional uncertainty, which the pandemic has heightened. 

However, these repressed emotions aren’t quarantined in dreams — they can leak into mornings. “A dream has to be really significant for it to change [my] entire day, but that does happen,” Novy said. 

Stress dreams also affect Hubbell’s and Hewitt’s mornings.  

“I think it’s interesting how your dream can be affecting your mood, and you don’t quite realize it,” Hewitt said. “Sometimes I’ll get up and I’ll be feeling something that’s left over from my dream, but I don’t really put it together until an hour later. I’m like, ‘Why am I so tense?’ It feels like it’s kind of this foggy thing in the back of my brain that is still looming from whatever I was dreaming, feeling like I need to resolve that conflict.”

Anxiety and inactivity during the day can decrease sleep quality, and frequent sleep interruptions may contribute to increased dream recall, according to Smithsonian Magazine. However, Hubbell, Hewitt, Landau and Novy all said their sleep seems relatively unaffected. 

Novy encourages his students to journal about their dreams when they wake up. 

“The thing that I feel like I’m teaching is tools and processes to make the mysteries of life more comprehensible and apparent,” he said. “And for that reason, I feel like dreams are a good thing to talk about, because everyone has them, and they make you more critical but also more open — and they’re funny. They’re funny and freaky, and they reverse your life.”

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