Updated on February 11, 2023
While it’s not exactly known what causes nightmares, there has been a possible correlation between the spread of coronavirus and an increase in extreme nocturnal terror. This hypothesis is based on the assertion that there is nothing supernatural about these nightmare-inducing sleeps, and that they are natural reactions to stress or whenever our sleep becomes suddenly disrupted.
This blog post will explore this topic in more depth, explaining the history and symptoms of coronavirus and how it relates to our nightmares, as well as exploring other possible theories and providing some relief for those who wish to avoid such troubling sleep.
Coronavirus, a Quick Intro
Coronavirus is a class of viruses that infect the lungs and cause respiratory problems such as pneumonia, bronchitis or even death. The most common of these causes the virus to spread via droplets of cough and sneeze, making them heavily associated with colds and flu.
The general transmission of coronaviruses is through droplets that are expelled through coughing or sneezing, which can mingle with saliva and be spread via coughing or by touching surfaces that the droplets have landed upon (touching door handles after someone with a common cold has touched them, for example).
How Does Coronavirus Cause Nightmares?
Coronaviruses are known for causing extreme and extremely frightening dreams. Their ability to affect us like this is due to their ability to hijack the body’s natural nerve response and cause it to be overreactive, resulting in a violently activated fight-or-flight response that results in what we recognize as nightmares.
This is very common, with 10–20% of the population reporting such bad dreams on a regular basis, making it the most common type of nightmare. It usually starts off very mild and becomes increasingly dramatic as the night progresses. For example, during my last nightmare, I was underwater and felt my oxygen bubble into my ears – something that is impossible with normal breathing. The sound of the bubbles filled my ears, drowning out the other noises, and I was terrified.
So how did the virus get its reputation for causing nightmares? There are several contributing factors.
One of the main reasons why we have dreams is because of day-to-day life and our subconscious brain activity. It makes sense that being infected with the coronavirus, or hearing pandemic stories from the news or friends can cause high levels of stress. Nightmares are usually triggered by stress. Stress may occur in reactions to illness, which can be brought about by a virus of any kind, including the recent Covid-19.
One study done in 1991 found that 33% of subjects reported having had at least one nightmare after experiencing an episode of severe bronchitis, suggesting that the likelihood is heightened when periods of heightened stress coincide with episodes of acute upper respiratory tract illnesses. However, the same study found that only 3% reported having had more than one episode of nightmare after acute bronchitis.
In addition, the study found that high levels of anxiety and depression were associated with a higher incidence of nightmares after bronchitis. In other words, in most cases, nightmares are caused by a combination of stress and a virus.
This makes sense in the case of coronavirus. Although it is not one of the more common causes of experiencing nightmares, it does trigger a number of other symptoms which could contribute to the experience. In addition to that, it is also possible that people who have been diagnosed with the virus may simply be more likely to attribute their symptoms solely to that when in fact, there are other contributing factors as well.
Coronavirus Nightmare Studies
The first known case of a coronavirus causing nightmares took place in 1993 when 33-year-old Jeanne Gukenga was admitted to the hospital after developing bronchial pneumonia, vomiting and severe headaches. She had been experiencing hallucinations since October 1992, which later became delusional behavior. The hallucinations are said to have progressed from simple visual hallucinations to hearing voices and are thought to have been triggered by an episode of severe bronchospasm.
So, almost 20 years later, is coronavirus still causing people to have nightmares? Absolutely. A recent study from the National Institute for Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering looked at data from 63 people who reported coronavirus-related nightmares due to having been diagnosed with the virus.
The results show that people have more paranasal sinus pain attacks during the second half of the week and have more severe symptoms. In addition to those symptoms, those diagnosed with coronavirus also reported having more severe sleep paralysis, abnormal sleep patterns and changes in dreaming activity.
It is important to remember that although recent studies have found a link between nightmares and coronavirus, the link is not as strong as it once was. In fact, there have been many studies done that have questioned the idea of a correlation between episodes of coronavirus and episodes of night terrors.
Some researchers claim that although there is a connection with some patients who experience night terrors, many more do not experience any kind of nocturnal trauma at all. So what makes them so different?
One study done by Dr Lawrence Patihis at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit found that only about half of their subjects experienced bad dreams upon experiencing an episode of severe upper respiratory tract infections. In order to test out the idea that coronavirus was causing the nightmare, he asked 152 subjects with no history of being diagnosed with any physical or mental condition that might have been triggered by a cardiovascular paroxysm, to fill out a questionnaire about their sleeping habits and experiences.
On average, those who had experienced a severe infection reported experiencing more nightmares after an episode of infection. However, this study also found that those who experienced nightmares were 3-5 times more likely to experience other troubling symptoms and have greater changes in their sleep pattern as a result of infection. In other words, night terrors were only part of the story.
So, the truth is that while there is a connection between coronavirus infections and nightmares, it is more complicated than once thought. In fact, while there is some evidence to suggest a strong correlation between the two, many more studies have found little to no correlation at all. People who experience night terrors may be more likely to develop a sleep disorder during a time of acute respiratory infection, but this does not necessarily mean that they are experiencing nightmares from coronavirus.
However, if you are experiencing any kind of sleep disturbance after being diagnosed with an acute respiratory tract infection, it is always a good idea to speak to your doctor about it. It is possible that the symptoms may be caused by something other than a virus or something as simple as stress and anxiety or depression.
- The pandemic is giving people vivid, unusual dreams. Here’s why – nationalgeographic.com