How pandemic life impacts our daydreams

·7 min read

In her pre-COVID commute to work, Amanda Jeysing would often stare out of the bus window, her thoughts wandering to a number of places.

Sometimes, the 25-year-old Ottawa freelance writer and communications assistant would dream up ideas for projects she wanted to start. Other times, she’d reflect on current issues and draft solutions for problems plaguing her and others. Almost always, Jeysing would envision expansive ideas of a future full of possibilities.

“It was a moment of rest for me,” Jeysing reflected. “Like, ‘there’s something else I want that’s not this, and I can see beyond this.’”

These daydreams have largely changed for Jeysing over the course of the pandemic, and some have ceased entirely. But as vaccination efforts ramp up, so does the promise of a life after lockdown that is free of limitations — and with it, the ability to daydream freely again.

Daydreaming is a natural state of the human brain. It is a byproduct of our “default mode network,” which allows us to produce imagery and simulation that is separate from the reality in front of us. For many, it’s a state that allows us to freely imagine our future and channel our creativity without restrictions.

But the monotony of life under COVID-19 has halted many of our daydreams, and in some ways, changed and restricted what we fantasize about entirely as we struggle to envision our lives during and after the virus. Researchers have begun to look at how this area of our subconscious has been changed by the pandemic, and interestingly, where our brain’s default mode has sought refuge and comfort as we began to cope with our new reality.

“(Thinking ahead) really requires us to predict ourselves forward in time and engage in that kind of future planning,” said Donna Rose Addis, a cognitive neuroscientist at Baycrest Hospital in North York.

“If our days are all the same, how is that going to effect our future thinking?” Addis wondered.

For Jeysing, the loss of having to commute partly meant the loss of some dedicated daydreaming time. As she began to work from home, she said her daydreams became more sporadic — almost like a different reality she’d pop in and out of for comfort.

“It was not something that I often controlled,” Jeysing said. “It just came to me.”

The things she began to daydream about also changed, Jeysing said. It was less about the future and more about creative impulses, such as imagining dance routines for songs she listened to with more ease.

But the immediate or long-term future was much harder for Jeysing to daydream about, as many of her travel and work plans were halted by the pandemic. This anxiety often broke up her more pleasant thoughts.

“Instead of me being able to enjoy or relax in a daydream, it became a lot more about getting interrupted in my daydreams by thoughts or anxiousness,” Jeysing said.

While the nature of their daydreams may have changed, some polls suggest people haven’t stopped planning for the future or wishing to travel. Expedia’s annual Vacation Deprivation study, conducted last November and December, revealed that 66 per cent of respondents created a bucket list for future vacations once pandemic travel restrictions cease, and 60 per cent are adding to their lists as the pandemic continues. Around 1,000 Canadians were included in the global study, which had a total of 9,200 respondents.

For some, however, the reality of travel feels so far off that it’s hard to infuse the idea seamlessly into daydreams or visions of the future without feelings of unease. Research done by Addis suggests interrupted daydreams are not unique to Jeysing, and are rather a larger byproduct of how the pandemic has affected our mental health.

Addis, who studies how people remember their past and envision their future, recognized that our ability to imagine what lies ahead may become more restricted during lockdown and the uncertainty of the pandemic.

She surveyed 735 people in Canada and elsewhere last May to determine how their future time perspective had changed.

“A lot of what we think about (when daydreaming) is the past, our future, ourselves, and a good portion of that is about our immediate concerns, so what just happened to us and what’s going to happen to us coming up,” Addis said.

Through the survey, Addis found that 70 per cent of respondents in May felt their days in lockdown were very similar, and that day-to-day sameness was associated with bigger anxiety and depressive symptoms in people who had no history of depression. Those same people also saw their futures as more constrained.

When asked to think freely about their future, 50 per cent of respondents framed their thoughts within the reality of the pandemic, even if they were envisioning a future that is far ahead. The more monotonous their days were, the more negative and less-detailed their thoughts about the future were.

Addis’ research has not been published yet as it is ongoing, and the neuroscientist is continuing to monitor these changes through a series of surveys as the pandemic progresses. The latest one, sent out in December, revealed the number of people who felt monotony in their day-to-day life dropped to 47 per cent.

“It’s a perception,” Addis said of the December results. “It’s not only driven by what’s actually happening in their lives but also how they feel about their lives.”

But those who continue to experience depressive symptoms are still finding it difficult to freely envision a future with no restrictions due to increased feelings of stress, Addis’ research found.

For some of us, it’s not the future, but rather the past that has given our default mode network the most solace during the pandemic, said Susan Whitbourne, a professor of psychological and brain sciences, with a focus on memory, at the University of Massachusetts.

“The fantasies that bring you back to previous times are probably more likely to occur when you’re not sort of dealing with the outside world so much,” Whitbourne said.

Whitbourne said she sometimes finds herself thinking back to happier times, like being on a warm beach on a trip two years ago. “I would just walk myself back through that, and just remember how happy I felt at the time,” she said.

Whether it’s the past, present or future, allowing our minds to wander freely has tremendous benefits for our mental health, as long as we’re not ruminating on the negatives, both Addis and Whitbourne said.

Thinking about the future allows us to plan and troubleshoot, as well as envision a better reality for us to work towards, whatever that may look like, Addis said. Ultimately, it can reduce our worry about the future.

“We’re able to implement the behaviours we want to implement, because we’ve actually imagined them,” Addis said.

And while our ability to freely imagine what’s to come has been restricted by the constraining realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, Addis said the human brain is extremely resilient. With mass vaccination on the horizon, it may not take long for us to freely envision our future again.

“Something will have changed, and there will be lessons learned,” Addis said, especially if people experienced grief and loss during the pandemic. “However I think that people are pretty resilient … by and large the brain will revert back to it’s free, imaginative state.”

Jeysing said she’s already noticed a difference in the things she daydreams about now that it’s been a year since lockdown and vaccine efforts are underway. She can now see herself visiting her family in Malaysia sometime soon, or dreaming up creative projects again that weren’t possible due to social distancing measures.

The pandemic shook the world upside down, Jeysing added, and our reality will likely look different than it did before COVID-19. Jeysing said she views this as a positive, as it allows her to have more expansive daydreams about what a post-COVID world could look like, both personally and for her community, with fewer limitations.

“I think (the future) is even more exciting,” Jeysing said.

“I just went through all of this, and I’m not taking the future for granted anymore.”

Nadine Yousif is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering mental health. Her reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Follow her on Twitter: @nadineyousif_

Nadine Yousif, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star