Sleep should be a welcome break from the daily grind of life during the pandemic. For many, it has instead become a welcome mat for a world of bizarre, often frightening, pandemic-induced dreams. Recent research from a study conducted in Finland confirms what many of us already suspected: People everywhere are having pandemic-related dreams and nightmares.
Published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, the study showed that nearly one-third of participants woke up more often at night compared with their prepandemic sleep patterns. More than one-quarter had more nightmares. These nightmares tended to be more common among those who reported higher levels of stress.
“(Dreams have) always been a fairly illogical way of processing the fears that haunt us during the day,” according to Dr. Kevin Nelson, a neuromuscular neurologist affiliated with the University of Kentucky, who was not involved in the study. “Dream content reflects our daytime fears,” he tells NBC News.
COVID-19 is not only invading our sleeping hours. During our awake hours, it has become a constant reminder of our impermanence in this world. This presents a source of conflict. According to psychologists, our brains are not designed to cope with such thoughts.
“You probably remember where you were that day in March when you first realized that the novel coronavirus was something,” writes journalist Emma Pattee in The Washington Post. Pattee, who frequently covers topics of women’s health, notes that she felt “unsettled and scared.” “That eerie uncomfortable feeling has been described as grief. As fear. Or anxiety,” she adds.
Sheldon Solomon, a social psychologist and professor at Skidmore College, has a more to-the-point explanation. “It is the existential anxiety caused by reminders of our own mortality.” “Simply put, to function as a conscious being, it’s imperative that you be in denial about your impending death,” Pattee explains.
“How else would you go about the mundane aspects of your daily life — cleaning the gutters, paying the bills, sitting in traffic — if you were constantly aware of the inevitability of your own death?” she adds.
Solomon, along with two other psychologists — Jeff Greenberg, a professor at the University of Arizona, and Thomas Pyszczynski, a professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs — have been involved in a two-decades-long study researching the ways humans avoid thinking about mortality and what happens when we are reminded of death.
What they found was “that death reminders cause a range of predictable behaviors, all designed to deny our certain end and cement our individual significance,” writes Pattee. They named this idea “terror management theory,” and it has become a widely supported view within the psychological community.
“Death avoidance isn’t simply a psychological theory either,” says Pattee. “A neurological study was published in 2019 about a mechanism in the brain that avoids awareness of a person’s own mortality and that categorizes death as something unfortunate that happens to other people.”
Researchers have also identified some predictable but varied responses to death reminders. They are, according to Pattee, “an urge to make yourself feel safe (in the world of the coronavirus, that would look like wearing a mask or washing your hands), complete denial (deciding the virus is part of a conspiracy theory, or reminding yourself that nobody you know is sick or that you are young and healthy)” and distraction.
It is easier to keep this denial going when death is not a part of your life. It is much harder when you have experienced the death of a loved one, for example, or during a global pandemic.
“When you have to go into lockdown to protect yourself from the physical threat, it’s interfering with those things that day-to-day allow us to feel psychologically secure in our sense of value in the world,” says Greenberg. He says that death reminders do not necessarily cause us to change our behavior; they simply intensify our preexisting beliefs and behaviors. James Baillie, a professor of philosophy at the University of Portland, adds that he believes the mechanisms that prevent us from fully grasping that we are going to die can temporarily cease to function, something he calls “an existential shock.”
Older adults are especially vulnerable during the coronavirus pandemic. Recent statistics suggest that people 65 and older make up 80% of COVID-19 deaths, Kaiser Health News reports.
“The pandemic narrative reinforces stereotypes of older adults as frail, disabled and dependent.” Judith Graham writes. Yet, according to a new study published in The Gerontologist, they are proving to be “notably resilient psychologically, calling upon a lifetime of experience and perspective to help them through difficult times.”
New research calls attention to this little-remarked-upon coping mechanism of older adults. “It shows that many seniors have changed behaviors — reaching out to family and friends, pursuing hobbies, exercising, participating in faith communities — as they strive to stay safe from the coronavirus,” Graham reports. According to The Gerontologist, older adults listened to public health authorities and have taken steps to minimize the risk of being infected by altering routines and physically distancing.
“In terms of how these findings relate to where we are now, I would argue these sources of joy and comfort, these coping resources, are even more important” says Brenda Whitehead, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.