You’re locked in a dark room, running out of breath, sweating and terrified, threatened by …

You wake up. You’ve just had a nightmare, which is mercifully rare. Only now it turns out they're not so rare. In the aftermath of COVID-19, millions more of us are suffering from abnormal dreams, according to new research from the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center. Abnormal dreams, ranging from brief hallucinations to horror epics, are one of the most potent signifiers of what Alon Avidan ’88, a professor in the UCLA Department of Neurology and director of the sleep clinic, dubs “coronasomnia.”

Indeed, the number of people reporting nightmares and allied ailments has increased from about 1 in 3 pre-pandemic to more than half. Bad dreams threaten our health by disrupting the critical rapid eye movement (REM) dreaming patterns that cap 90-minute sleep cycles in all mammals. Healthy REM sleep helps shield us from everything from diabetes to, possibly, Alzheimer’s.

So what’s going on? We’re drinking more, doomscrolling on blue-lit screens in bed, taking new medications and piling on the pounds — all of which are associated with poor sleep.

Interestingly, the form of COVID-enhanced bad dreams seems to vary among cultures. In China and Italy, such dreams tend to feature claustrophobia; in Europe, the threat of violent harm is more prevalent.

But what keeps Avidan awake at night is the Catch-22 facing many patients at the clinic: Constant fretting about lost sleep only feeds nightmares and insomnia. “We are becoming so hyperaware of our sleeping patterns or tracking ourselves through apps,” he says, “that such worries may be keeping us awake.”

Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Winter 2023 issue.