A sleep expert explains why you're having such vivid dreams during the coronavirus pandemic

Have you experienced vivid dreams Image: Photo by Shane on Unsplash

Anna Medaris Miller
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  • Many people are reporting having vivid dreams during the coronavirus pandemic.
  • This sleep expert believes it could be due to an overload of new information and emotions.

The other night I gave birth to a loaf of pumpernickel bread.

Later, I raced through a strip mall on a time-sensitive mission, but was interrupted at a shoe store where the cashier was holding patrons hostage in an ice-breaker game.

Finally, I resumed my senior year of college, where I poured milk over the side of my sorority-house bunk bed and watched it turn into a psychedelic potion.

Then, I woke up.

Over the past month, my real life has become sensorially monotonous due to coronavirus-related "stay-at-home" orders in what's usually the city that never sleeps. Where I used to run over and under New York City bridges and through boroughs just to get to work, I now roll over and log on. Where I used to wake to the smell of our neighborhoods' bakery and barbecue joints, I now smell Lysol. And, where I used to hear car horns beeping, I now hear my microwave.

But these days my dream life, though always colorful, is particularly grand.

I talked to others who've had similar experiences and a sleep expert to figure out why.

Have you read?

Many people are reporting deep vivid, memorable, and super realistic dreams

When I recruited Facebook friends to tell me about their current experiences with dreams, over 20 responded overnight using words like "vivid," "realistic," and "memorable."

"I'm sleeping deeply and having the kinds of dreams I used to have as a kid — super detailed with real plots I can actually recall and recount, instead of just generalized weirdness," one friend said.

Another person said she had such a vivid dream one night she told her family. "The majority of them shared their oddly vivid dreams from same night," she said.

One person said she never dreams, but that all changed in the past two weeks. Another confessed her "dreams are so real I think they've actually happened."

While some people recalled coronavirus-related or otherwise stressful dreams, others said they welcomed the escape. "I look forward to my nightly adventures," a fellow New Yorker told me.

Another echoed the sentiment: During one recent dream, she was at an upscale outdoor bar with friends from work, "having fun and socializing," she remembers. "It was nice."

A sleep expert told me the dreams may be helping us process information and emotions

Michael Grandner, director of the University of Arizona's sleep and health research program, told me two factors are likely at play. The first has to do with the brain's role in learning, emotion processing, and memory formation.

"Dreams are our brains processing and organizing and integrating and making sense of things," he said, and we're all trying make sense of the world right now. "We're dumped in this new environment and we're trying to figure out our place in it."

Whether that processing leads to enjoyable dreams or panic-ridden ones may have something to do with how much media coverage you've watched and whether you've managed your anxiety in other ways, like by talking to family and friends, a study on college students' dreams after 9/11 suggests.

Another key issue at play could be changing schedules: Many people are sleeping later these days, Grandner finds, since the normal life logistics of preparing for and getting to work and school no longer take up time.

"They're sleeping like a retired person," Grandner said.

That's not a bad thing: The extra time, particularly in the morning, may allow your brain to complete another REM cycle or two, the type of deep sleep during which most vivid dreams occur. "Before, we stopped the movie before we got to the interesting part," Grandner said. "Now, we might not be doing that."

Eventually, he suspects, these midnight showings may become less frequent or exciting as our bodies catch up and adjust. Right now, they're "rebound" dreams. "It's like when you've been holding your breath for a while," he said, "those first few breaths are good ones."

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