Global study of sleep during the pandemic reveals more negative and death-related dreaming for people with insomnia

A Monash study of more than 2000 people globally found that – during the pandemic – people who developed insomnia experienced more negative, anxious and death-related dreams, when finally asleep

The study by Dr Melinda Jackson and Hailey Meaklim, a PhD student, from the Monash University Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health, looked at changes in dreaming between individuals with and without insomnia symptoms and their relationship to mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The global survey examining insomnia symptoms, dreams and mental health was launched in April 2020 by Monash University and followed participants over 12 months.

Of 2240 participants aged over 18, 45% reported changes to their dreams early in the pandemic. According to Dr Jackson, participants’ dream reports included “increased dream activity with participants dreaming vividly, in high-definition, and with a strong negative charge,” she said.

The findings are now published in the Journal of Sleep Research

Dream themes around survival, such as mortality, were also noted. For example, one participant reported they “woke up crying dreaming of death.”  Respondents also dreamt about adjusting to pandemic life, with COVID-19 content featuring, such as dreams about the virus and lockdowns. Notably, poor sleep quality was often referenced in respondents' dream reports, such as waking up after a nightmare and being unable to return to sleep.

Those with insomnia, a common sleep disturbance, experienced more dream changes than other participants. Those with new-onset insomnia (55%) and pre-existing insomnia (45%) reported more altered dream experiences than individuals who remained good sleepers (36%) during the pandemic.

The researchers, studied the types of words used to describe dream changes, finding that respondents with insomnia used more negative words to describe their dream changes by comparison to good sleepers – with individuals who developed new-onset insomnia during the pandemic using more anxious and death-related words than those who slept well.

Importantly the study found that dream changes were associated with more depression, anxiety and stress symptoms over time, and this effect was more pronounced in individuals with insomnia.

“Our results highlight that insomnia symptoms, especially new-onset insomnia, are associated with more negative dream changes during collective stressful events, potentially compounding daytime distress and mental health symptoms over time,” Dr Jackson said.

“During times of crisis, dreaming and insomnia may reveal an important target for mental health interventions.”

The survey captured baseline data during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic between 6 April and 15 May 2020 with follow-up surveys conducted at 3, 6 and 12-month intervals, concluding in June 2021.

Read the full paper in the Journal of Sleep Research titled: Strange themes in pandemic dreams: Insomnia was associated with more negative, anxious and death-related dreams during the COVID-19 pandemic.DOI: 10.1111/jsr.13655