While neurological issues, including lack of taste and smell, are major indicators of COVID-19, there is little evidence to suggest that you get vivid COVID-19 dreams. However, other factors may result in vivid dreams that may be inadvertently associated with COVID-19.
What Causes Dreams?
When we are resting or asleep, we tend to think the brain isn’t doing very much, mainly because our physical body is resting, and that was a commonly held view even in the 1950s. But it’s surprisingly active. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, sleep may act as a way for the brain to repair and remove various toxins that build up while you’re awake. As a result, we drift between various stages of sleep:
- Stage I non-REM
- Stage II non-REM
- Stage III non-REM
It’s during REM sleep that we tend to dream, although dreaming has been seen in other stages. In theory, sleep paralysis occurs at this stage, although it’s not perfect — anyone who’s watched a dog running in its sleep or a loved one sleepwalking knows this. Typically, we spend about two hours each night dreaming.
When Do Dreams Become More Vivid?
Most of the studies in circulation look at how certain types of dreaming are linked to ill health rather than well-being. In many cases, it’s assumed that dreams reflect and are influenced by waking well-being. The calmer you are, the more favorable your dreams. While mental well-being may determine a positive or negative dream, it doesn’t directly affect dreams’ vividness.
One of the key indicators of whether you’re likely to remember dreams (and therefore remember them as more vivid) is at what time during the sleep cycle you wake up.
Several things need to occur to remember a dream:
- Slow waking
- Little movement
- Active recollection of the dream
This is most likely to happen when it’s late in the REM stage, and you’re calm and ready to go back to sleep — not when you’ve just been jerked awake by an alarm.
So Are Vivid COVID-19 Dreams a Thing?
They aren’t exactly. But certain social events have happened during the pandemic that can result in vivid COVID-19 dreams.
People are more likely to work from home now, which means they have shorter commutes, a little more time to themselves and more time to sleep. Those who have been furloughed have generally had more time to wake up slowly — after all, without the pressure of attending work, they may actually be getting a decent amount of sleep at night and into the morning.
But there is another factor: COVID-19 has placed greater stress on many people. In general, stress releases cortisol, which has a variety of effects on the body. Its main function is to regulate the metabolism, immune function and the inflammatory response. Most importantly, it helps decide when the body should use glucose. This is the fuel the body uses, and during times of heightened stress, the body uses more glucose as it prepares for a flight-or-fight response.
However, cortisol also plays a role in sleep and dreaming.
One of the key concepts that many scientists who study sleep talk about is memory consolidation. This is poorly defined, but it’s generally understood to mean how the body organizes thoughts and then stores them in long-term memory. This activity is touted as the reason we dream by some, and cortisol levels can alter the content that’s remembered. High levels of cortisol have an effect on the memory consolidation process, resulting in differently structured dreams as the hippocampus (a key part of the learning/memory system) is disrupted. Dreams become less ordered and are more prone to being similar, resulting in multiple memory patterns being stored for the same memory. This creates the illusion of vividness.
The brain is also very good at creating narrative and thematic coherence, so fragments of thoughts tend to be woven into an overarching narrative — even if you realize upon waking that the narrative made absolutely no sense.
And fragmented memory patterns transforming into stressful dreams are more likely to force the dreamer awake. Again, this reinforces the illusion of vividness, because you are more likely to remember the dream — perhaps not the exact circumstances, but the general shape and feel of the dream. Again, because your brain tends to make narratives out of fragmented thoughts, a lot of dream memory is reconstructing what bits you remember and then filling in the blanks.
It’s even theorized that nightmares may be beneficial to mental health. Students who had high nightmare intensities were more likely to have better coping mechanisms for stress than those with low nightmare intensities.
COVID-19 and Vivid Dreams
Ultimately, vivid dreams are not a symptom of COVID-19, but they are a sign that you may be experiencing too much stress. Alternatively, it may simply be a sign that you’re getting enough sleep and waking up in a nice, gentle way. While these explanations may seem a little paradoxical, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time two very different issues have the same effect, resulting in vivid COVID-19 dreams.