A new study on dreams during COVID-19 found that women are experiencing more intense — and often more stressful — dreams than men.
The international study, which is published in the journal Dreaming, surveyed 2,888 people about their dreams during the global pandemic. Their responses were then compared with a database of dreams that was collected before the pandemic.
Study author Deirdre Barrett, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University, wrote in her paper that women reported having “significantly lower positive emotions in their dreams and higher rates of negative emotions, anxiety, sadness, anger, body content, references to biological processes, health, and death.”
Men reported having slightly higher levels of negative emotions than before the pandemic but at a less severe level than women. Men also did not experience higher levels of anger, sadness and body content, or body image, in their dreams than in pre-pandemic dreams, Barrett found.
Death was a consistent topic in dreams, with both men and women reporting experiencing dreams that involved death at three times a higher rather than before the pandemic. “Although some of the dreams with death-related words are classic horror-film fare — as with one woman who wanders into a mortuary, which she gradually discovers is embalming live COVID patients — there were also peaceful references to death,” Barrett wrote. “One dreamer attended a lovely family picnic with beloved dead relatives; another had a visit from her deceased mother and aunt who told her it was ‘time to come with us,’ and she was happily led away.”
Barrett tells Yahoo Life that her survey findings are “reflective of the fact that the pandemic is simply affecting women more in their waking lives.”
She cites data that has found that women, on average, perform three times more unpaid care work as men, are more likely to be caregivers for sick people in the family (making them more vulnerable to infection), make up 70 percent of health care workers globally and are less well-supplied with personal protective equipment. Women are also at greater risk of domestic violence during pandemic times, have reduced access to sexual and reproductive health services and lost disproportionally more jobs since the start of the pandemic, Barrett says.
“I had so many people say they feel overwhelmed with the number of unpleasant or angry-sad dreams, and they just want them to stop,” Barrett says. “They feel like the dreams are making them more anxious by day, and they want the vicious circle to end.”
"In this pandemic, women overall have taken on the bigger burden of the majority of childcare and home care while still working compared to men, overall," Dr. Gail Saltz is an associate professor of psychiatry at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and host of the Personology podcast from iHeartRadio, tells Yahoo Life. "This greater burden is highly stressful and adds to the stress content of dreams."
How to stop disturbing dreams
If you’re struggling with disturbing dreams, there are a few different things you can do, board-certified sleep medicine researcher Dr. W. Christopher Winter, of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine and author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It, tells Yahoo Life.
One is to get on a good, regular sleep schedule. “A lot of my patients have been all over with sleep schedules,” Winter says. “Any time people deviate from a regular schedule, there’s an uptick in dreaming. Building that structure back in is important, not only for dreaming but for sleep in general.”
When you’re awake, trying to focus on stress-reduction techniques can also help your dreams, Winter says. “Meditate, exercise, do whatever it is you need to do at home to allow you to deal with stress in a positive and constructive way,” he says.
“If you’re struggling with intense dreams lately, it’s important to pay attention to them,” Saltz says.
“It likely means you are by day feeling more difficult and intense emotions that you may or may not be aware of,” she says. “It may also mean you are having interrupted sleep and thereby remembering your nightmares more so. Frequent awakening makes it more likely you will remember a dream.”
You can even train yourself to dream about something else, Barrett says. She conducted a previous study on college students and sleep training and found that half of them were able to dictate what they dreamed about within a week of trying sleep training. To try this tactic, she recommends thinking about something positive that you’d like to dream about when you go to sleep. “Maybe it’s a place you want to visit or a topic you like,” she says. “Fall asleep telling yourself that you want to dream about it.” You can even start the dream for yourself while you’re awake, Winter says — your mind may continue things from there.
If you have a dream that continues to bother you, Winter recommends thinking about it while you’re awake and then planning out how you want the dream to end on a positive note. “Create a stress-less ending, and your brain will stop dwelling on it,” he says. Maybe you take the dream where you have to oversee remote learning for your child’s entire class and end with you redirecting them all to their teacher, or end your dream where you lose your job with landing your dream job afterward. “If you can make this dream make perfect, mundane sense, it kind of stops you from thinking about it,” Winter says.
For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.
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