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  • Multiple studies have examined how the coronavirus shows up in dreams.
  • Women reported the most pandemic-related stress and were more likely to see an effect on their dreams and sleep patterns.
  • Increased dream frequency and recall, as well as patterns in dream content, reflect a shared anxiety about the pandemic.
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The coronavirus has infected every aspect of our lives — even our dreams, several studies have found.

Imagery of accidental handshakes, getting stuck at borders during lockdown, and losing loved ones to the virus make up a shared dreamscape observed in a Finnish study published today in Frontiers of Psychology.

Some themes of bad dreams were unrelated to Covid-19, lead author Anu-Katriina Pesonen, head of the Sleep & Mind Research Group at the University of Helsinki, told Insider. But others were unmistakably influenced by the pandemic and associated countermeasures.

"Losing your passport is a very common dream also outside of Covid-19," Pesonen said. "But in this case, many people were really stuck in the border, and they were combined with some kind of apocalyptic atmosphere … I think that reflected well the situation in springtime with Europe, when borders were closing."

The study used an AI algorithm to identify common nouns that came up in more than 800 people's dream reports collected in the sixth week of lockdown in Finland. The majority of respondents also reported an increase in stress during the pandemic, which was linked to sleep disturbances and nightmares.

Women reported more stress and nightmares compared to men

In the Finnish study, women reported a greater increase in stress levels and more frequent nightmares during the pandemic. The authors also observed that people who were more stressed out were more likely to have pandemic-related dreams.

These findings are consistent with at least three other studies published in the September issue of the journal Dreaming. In one analysis of nearly 3,000 international participants who reported their pandemic-related dreams in an online survey, women saw a more pronounced shift towards negative emotions, anxiety, and death in their dreams compared to men.

Another study of 3,000 adults in the US found that people whose lives were most affected by the pandemic, whether they lost their jobs or knew someone who fell ill, reported the strongest effects on dream recall and content. Women and those with higher levels of education also reported a greater negative shift in their dreams during the pandemic compared to other groups.

"Subjective stress experienced due to the Covid-19 and the countermeasures, that's clearly reflected in dreaming," Michael Schredl, a sleep researcher at the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany who analysed the data for the US study, told Insider. 

Pandemic-related dreams may reflect an adjustment to new social norms

One common theory about why we dream says we're practicing social skills necessary for survival and reproduction, Schredl said. Coping with the "new normal" is crucial to making it through the pandemic, and dreams offer an opportunity to practice this in a safe environment.

For this reason, even dreams that feel nightmarish might have a productive purpose, Pesonen added.

"We speak about bad dreams, but maybe they also can be very good dreams," Pesonen said. "Sleep can foster learning processes, and we all have to learn new ways to behave socially."

Teresa DeCicco, co-author of a small Canadian study also featured in the September issue of Dreaming, said that researchers wouldn't be seeing so much coronavirus-related dream content if the pandemic wasn't causing people anxiety. But, she said these dreams are a helpful reminder to protect oneself in waking life.

"If you're having anxiety-related dreams to COVID or something else, they're there to help you regulate," DeCicco told Insider. "Even with COVID, there's lots we can do to protect ourselves. So, if we're having anxiety dreams around that, we can socially distance, wear a mask, disinfect, wash our hands. And those things really, really help."