C-Force: Pandemic Leaves Marks on Our Dreams and Sense of Mortality
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."