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What’s up with our dreams lately? Sleep researchers cite extraordinary coronavirus stress

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The scene: Costco. A young woman, desperate, shoves strangers aside as she breaks for the cleaning products aisle. On a high shelf stands the last two tubes of Lysol wipes. Several hands stretch to snatch this quarantine prize.

But the woman, shedding all dignity, leaps over the crowd, scoops the containers in one expert sweep, then lands on her feet.

Some tense situations may have played out in stores amid the coronavirus, but this depiction didn’t actually happen. This was one Globe correspondent’s weird pandemic dream.

In social media posts, web searches, and newly created websites, people are claiming to have an onslaught of odd, vivid dreams — even those who say they rarely remembered dreams in the past.


We all share the startling experience of living in the age of a pandemic. We may also be united in our subconscious — psychologically dealing with reality by way of distorting it.

Why is this happening? While no one can say with certainty, some sleep researchers say the pandemic has altered routines for many people and may have thrown off their natural sleep rhythms.

“It’s a very stressful time for a lot of people. There’s a lot to think about,” said Dr. Sanford Auerbach, who directs the Sleep Disorders Center at Boston Medical Center. “It can be very anxiety-provoking. We’re not doing the things that help us maintain sleep — like exercise.”

Auerbach also said the stay-at-home guidelines provide additional opportunity to sleep. And some people may "react to [this crisis] by becoming depressed. So, they sleep [even] more.”

Dr. Robert Stickgold, director of the Center for Sleep and Cognition at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, said the added strains of the pandemic may play a key role.

“The one that most people think of are things like stress, more new, unresolved issues, more emotional events, all of which would likely produce more memorable, although not necessarily more vivid dreams," he said via e-mail.


Most of our REM (rapid-eye movement) sleep — the stage when most dreams occur — takes place toward the end of the night prior to awakening. Everybody dreams, but not everybody remembers them, Auerbach said.

“If you’re now sleeping in, and you’re not just waking up because the alarm clock goes off, the thought is that people may be having the opportunity to experience more REM sleep,” Auerbach said. “They’re more likely to have dreams or remember dreams they wouldn’t have ordinarily.”

Hypothetically, this extra time sleeping would be occurring during the time in the morning richest in REM sleep, said Dr. Charles Czeisler, chief of the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Czeisler cited research on participants who were sleeping without knowing what time of day it was.

“Eighty-five percent of all spontaneous wake-ups occur during REM sleep. There’s a four out of five chance you’ll [naturally] awaken directly out of REM sleep,” he said. “That’s when you’re much more likely to remember a dream.”

Stickgold theorizes that people may be noticing their dreams more due to extraordinary circumstances. “[People] may be waking up more, because of general anxiety levels,” he said.

He said a lack of environmental stimuli thanks to the quarantine may be behind the quirky dream phenomena.

“Our dreams are intensely social events; almost all dreams involve people other than the dreamer, and involve social interactions,” Stickgold said. “When such interactions are diminished in waking, the brain notices!”


Czeisler said dreams are a rehearsal of our experiences while awake — what we’ve learned, what problems we’ve solved, and who we’ve interacted with.

“It’s kind of how we cope with things and learn about how to respond to things,” he said. Part of that important processing happens during REM sleep.

What differentiates a weird dream from a normal one?

“It’s in the eye of the beholder," Auerbach said. He described patients who visit the sleep disorders center claiming bothersome vivid dreams, adamant that what they’re experiencing are not nightmares.

“How do you decide what the quality [of a dream is]: vivid dream or nightmare? Where’s that boundary?” Dr. Auerbach said.

Reports of changes in sleep and dreaming patterns occurred following other dramatic events, the specialists said — including the Sept. 11 attacks and the election of President Trump.

Auerbach said he doesn’t remember having any weird dreams of late. The same goes for Stickgold. “But I wasn’t particularly paying attention!” he said.

Stefania Lugli can be reached at stefania.lugli@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @steflugli.