During lockdowns, COVID-19 haunted children's dreams

May 15, 2021
The pandemic affected the dreaming lives of adolescents. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

The pandemic affected the dreaming lives of adolescents. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

The coronavirus pandemic had a strong effect on the dreams of secondary school students during the spring lockdown of 2020 — especially those who reported emotional distress, according to a study that examined dreaming among adolescents in three European countries in granular detail.

For the study, published April 20 in Frontiers in Psychology, a team of researchers gathered data through an anonymous online questionnaire developed at Sapienza University's Adolescent Day Hospital, "My life during the lockdown." The authors coordinated with international professors and culture organizations in Europe to design a cross-sectional survey for students in Italy, Romania and Croatia. 2,105 secondary school students, averaging 15.4 years of age, completed the anonymous survey. The researchers controlled for age, gender and country to see how a student's waking life influenced his or her dreams.

Adolescents were asked 73 questions in their native language about dreams, family exposure to COVID-19, relationships with friends and personal mood — the last two of which were meant to explore the emotional impacts of a lockdown on participants' dreams and mental health. The authors found that over 14% of dreams were directly related to the pandemic, with one student writing "that they had found the vaccination" and another worrying "that my mum died of coronavirus." "The younger the teenagers were, the more often their dreams dealt overtly with COVID-19," the authors noted in the paper.

"We have seen in these past years incredible interest concerning mental health but also how dreaming relates to our waking life," lead author Ana Guerrero-Gomez told The Academic Times.

At the end of the 19th century, pioneering psychotherapist Sigmund Freud found that recent experiences in a person's daily life while awake are common in their dreams. He published his findings in his famous "Die Traumdeutung," or "The Interpretation of Dreams." Recent studies have built on Freud's initial observation to form the continuity hypothesis of dreaming, which suggests that dreaming is continuous with waking life — including on an emotional level. 

Others have emphasized that dreams reflect the emotions dreamers find significant during their waking lives — a theory supported by recent neurocognitive research from G. William Domhoff that examined dream reports from the late 1950s to 2016. 

Guerrero-Gomez and her colleagues were curious about the connection between mental health and dreaming in light of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, which changed daily patterns of behavior and increased stressors that are associated with negative emotions. But nearly all dream studies published in the midst of the pandemic have focused on adults, meaning there is a clear lack of empirical evidence on children's dreams. Guerrero-Gomez and her colleagues believed that addressing this gap could provide the basis for better mental health counseling for young adults.

"In our view, knowing that dreams are actually connected to how people emotionally live their lives might help teenagers to develop their emotional intelligence," said Guerrero-Gomez. "In problematic cases, being aware of a nightmare increase could help the students come to the decision of asking for professional help."

The authors explored the effects of COVID-19 on dreaming by asking binary yes or no questions about exposure. The more objective stress caused by the pandemic was covered by questions about a loved one being infected or dying. More subjective fears were tested by asking if participants themselves were afraid of contracting SARS-CoV2. The adolescents' emotional reactions were explored through questions about experiencing discomfort or sadness. 

Guerrero-Gomez and her co-authors expected to see an increase in nightmares, more dream recall overall and more dream content based on COVID-19, especially among young people who reported family members who had been infected with the virus or had died. All three of the team's hypotheses proved to be true. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, over 46% of participants reported a fear of being infected, and more than 76% reported a fear of loved ones being infected. The vast majority of young people – over 85% – reported difficulties in coping with life during the lockdown. Overall, 31% of all adolescents noted an increase in dream recall.

"An encouraging surprise was the positive changes in the students' life during the first lockdown in spring 2020, like better relationships between family members and being proud of the way they were coping with lockdown," said Guerrero-Gomez. Over 61% of respondents reported positive changes in relationships with friends and 76% noted the same for their parents. 

"One-fifth of the students reported having more nightmares, which was a finding that also struck us," Guerrero-Gomez added. She and her team analyzed answers by country and found small but notable discrepancies in two questions. Italian students were most likely to report an increase in nightmares and to report a so-called "extraordinary" dream, out-pacing the Romanian and Croatian adolescents. Nightmares and extraordinary dreams are both based on emotional stress -- and the beginning of the pandemic was especially distressing for people in Italy, the authors noted. Italy was under lockdown for months longer than either Romania or Croatia and also had the highest death toll from coronavirus in Europe as of late 2020.

One factor that stood out for its potential to increase resilience was creativity. Students who took part in creative activities during the spring lockdown were less likely to report dreams related to the pandemic. Young people who spent their time in a creative way also wrote down their dreams more often.

The team's next task is to examine more of the data in the "My life during the lockdown" questionnaire, including "extraordinary" dreams. Students reported almost 500 of these dreams, which are waiting to be studied in detail. "We are also starting to prepare school projects for next year aimed at mental health prevention," said Guerrero-Gomez.

"As the second and third waves of the pandemic brought many distressing changes to the students' relationships, we should start considering the current emotional conditions of teenagers to find the best way to protect mental health and to prevent mental disorders," Guerrero-Gomez said.

The study, "Dreaming in adolescents during the COVID-19 health crisis: Survey among a sample of European school students," published April 20 in Frontiers in Psychology, was authored by Ana Guerrero-Gomez, Isabel Nöthen-Garunja, Annelore Homberg, Caterina Bonizzi and Cecilia Iannaco, European Network for Psychodynamic Psychiatry; Michael Schredl, Heidelberg University; Maria Vulcan, European Capital of Culture Association; and Asja Brusić, Croatian Cultural Centre.

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