Here’s Why Your Pandemic Dreams Are So Vivid
Anxiety, trauma, and even more sleep can lead to wildly inspired dreams
In the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, Harvard University dream researcher Deirdre Barrett, PhD, dreamed she was inside a beautiful library in a centuries-old house. The library, filled with leather-bound volumes and aglow from gaslights, had a cozy feel to it, she recalls, but she was aware that something “terrible” was going on everywhere outside.
Not surprisingly, the novel coronavirus has worked its way into the collective subconscious, producing both bizarre dreamscapes and more realistic anxiety dreams. “In any crisis situation, there tends to be a slight uptick in dream recall and especially in dream vividness — anything unusual that has us thinking more vivid waking thoughts will carry into our dreams,” says Dr. Barrett, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of Pandemic Dreams, which came out last month. “However, we are seeing a bigger uptick in people saying they are having more dreams, more vivid dreams, and more bizarre dreams now than in response to other crises.”
Barrett, who has studied the dreams of Americans after 9/11, of Kuwaitis during the Afghani occupation, of POWs in Nazi prison camps, and of other trauma victims, recently turned her researcher’s lens on people living through the current pandemic. Her new book draws on a survey of over 8,000 dreams from almost 4,000 subjects. Here, she shares her findings with CoveyClub and explains what we can learn from our coronavirus dreams.
CoveyClub: Lots of people have reported having bizarre or disturbing dreams during the pandemic. Is it that we are dreaming more because of stress and anxiety, or are we remembering more of our dreams for some reason?
Dr. Barrett: While most crises result in people sleeping a little less out of worry, or because they have to do something to respond to the crisis while they do their normal thing, in this case, people don’t generally have to get up as early. So many who are sleep-deprived in normal life are catching up on sleep, and a lot continue to get more than they did before the pandemic. The typical person is being asked to shelter at home: Some are furloughed from their jobs, while others are working from home, so they can skip an hour of getting ready in the morning and commuting. Any crisis has a psychological reason to make our dreams a little more vivid and memorable, but this time it’s coming with increased hours of sleep, and hours of sleep is the strongest correlation with recalling your dreams.
Why? Most dreams we are having in REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. We go into REM sleep every 90 minutes through the night, but each period gets longer, with the first REM period being just five or six minutes. If you sleep eight hours, the last one can be up to 30 minutes. If you sleep six hours instead of eight, you are not getting three quarters of your dreaming time — you are missing your last, longest, most intense dream period. So people now are not only catching up on sleep, they are dreaming more.
CoveyClub: Are the dreams people are having now similar to the dreams of trauma victims you have studied, and of those living through these other crises?
Dr. Barrett: What’s very similar to post-9/11, is for the average person — who is certainly very anxious about this but not necessarily directly traumatized by it — the typical dream is anxious but not a full-on nightmare. People who are scared of getting the virus sometimes have realistic dreams, where they are spiking a fever or having trouble breathing, but some are more bizarre. One woman dreamt she looked down and saw bright blue stripes on her stomach, and remembered that’s what they say is the first symptom of having COVID-19. These kinds of anxiety dreams vary from the person getting it themselves to an elderly parent or child coming down with it.
But for the people who are the most directly affected, meaning healthcare workers on the front lines, their dreams look a lot like those of the first responders during 9/11, or the people who were almost hit by collapsing buildings or were on the streets of lower Manhattan as bodies were falling. Healthcare workers are having post-traumatic nightmares, which are generally not as bizarre and dreamlike as other dreams, but tend to reenact the worst kinds of experiences they’ve had by day. They might distort them in a somewhat bizarre way, but it’s something that happened in real life that happens in the dream. Some survivors of 9/11, for example, dreamt of being on the street and having body after body falling on the street around them.
With coronavirus, the most common dream among the nurses and doctors is that they have a patient who is about to die, who is having extreme trouble breathing, and the healthcare worker is either trying to get the patient to take a tracheal tube or a ventilator is malfunctioning. Someone is about to die, and something is going wrong with the equipment. They are struggling to do something, and not succeeding. Mostly, they feel responsible for the patient but have no control over the situation.
CoveyClub: What about patients who have had COVID-19? Are they also having post-traumatic nightmares?
Dr. Barrett: There is a smaller set of those surveyed who have had COVID-19, and their dreams are quite different. What they report is not a post-traumatic nightmare, it’s what we call a fever dream. It’s a kind of delirious condition — and fever dreams are really terrible — but they’re kind of the opposite of the more realistic trauma dreams, in that fever dreams are even more bizarre than most dreams. They feel like a dream, but the person’s brain is usually showing some signs that would be typical of sleep and some signs that are typical of waking. In this hybrid state, sometimes an image is horrifying as in a nightmare, and other times, they are really terrified without the imagery necessarily being that way. The person is very confused but very strongly trying to sort out what is real. In a typical dream we don’t notice that things are bizarre or impossible — if you’re in one room one moment and in the woods the next moment, you just take that for granted. People in fever dreams are in one place one moment and another place another moment, and they know that’s not possible and they are terrified at how they’ve been transported. Even if the imagery doesn’t seem that scary, the person is terrified by this confusion.
CoveyClub: Are there common elements or themes running through people’s dreams during this pandemic?
Dr. Barrett: There are a lot of metaphors for the virus: In many of them, dreamers are being attacked by bugs. This is a really common one. I didn’t see that in 9/11, where the events had such visual details inherent in them — most people dreamed of hijackers with knives or buildings falling down on them. But this virus is invisible. When our dreaming mind is very anxious, it tries to find an image that is appropriate to that level of fright. So any threat can get translated into metaphoric imagery. Bug attacks are an especially good metaphor, partly because we use the saying “I’m coming down with a bug,” but also because it tends to be swarms of bugs, not a single bug attacking. They’ll say “hordes of roaches are running toward me,” or swarms of bees, or a big mass of wriggling worms. Lots of little things that cumulatively can kill me is sort of how people think about the virus.
I am also seeing other metaphors: tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes — any natural disaster — but also mobs of shooters in the street or one person with an assault weapon shooting randomly in crowds. There were even some dreams about rioting — before there were protests that turned into riots. I think that when the brain is feeling fear, it looks for an appropriate image to go with that. Most dreams latch onto recent experiences, others onto more archetypal metaphoric fears. For this invisible danger, we don’t have one clear image of what it is we’re afraid of, so during this crisis we see a lot more metaphoric dreams and fewer literal ones.
The most common realistic dream is that at the start of the dream, the pandemic doesn’t seem to exist, and then partway in they remember the pandemic and that they forgot to put their mask on or they’ve gotten too close to people. I’m also seeing another kind of anxiety dream where the person knows it’s the pandemic and has their mask on, but they encounter people who are not wearing masks and are touching them and coughing in their face.
CoveyClub: Can you explain what is happening in our brain when we dream, and how this is affected by anxiety and stress?
Dr. Barrett: During the rest of sleep, the brain is very inactive, but when you get to this REM period every 90 minutes, the brain reactivates to about the same amount of activity as waking. When we put tiny electrodes over many areas of the brain during sleep, we see that some areas are even more active than when we are awake, and some less so. One area that is much more active is the secondary visual cortex. The primary visual cortex processes input from the eye, directly — that’s not very active. But when we’re dreaming, the secondary visual cortex, which forms images with or without the eye, is the most active area of the brain.
Our mid-brain emotion areas are also more active than they are when we are awake. Typically, it’s a mix of emotions that you will see across a dream, but when people are having anxiety dreams, it’s the sub-parts that deal with fear that are more activated, even more so on average than when we are typically awake. And then some areas are less active, like those associated with logical linear reasoning and verbal expression. I think that’s why dreams are so visual and emotional, why we don’t have as much language when we’re dreaming, and why we have remarkably bad logic at times — yet we don’t notice bizarre discrepancies.
CoveyClub: I’ve read that dreams are involved in the encoding of long-term memories — can you explain how? Are traumatic experiences more likely to be encoded/remembered?
Dr. Barrett: Research suggests that REM sleep is important to remembering more emotional memories. While REM sleep may play a little bit of a role in factual memories, memories that have a social component or are accompanied by strong emotion are especially impaired if you deprive people of REM sleep. So it looks like one of the many functions of REM sleep is to process specifically emotional-social memory. And trauma memories are obviously very emotional.
CoveyClub: Do you think that social isolation and quarantining have had an impact on the dreams people are having during this period? How might that show up in dreams?
Over time, the dreams about getting the virus and “Oops, I forgot my mask” have declined, and ones depicting things about quarantine — and other secondary effects of the pandemic — are on the increase. Lots of people have dreams that are metaphoric for whatever their sheltering situation is. There are several where people are put in prison or jail with no reasons given. People at home alone have exaggerated loneliness dreams: Even when they go outside to walk, everything is deserted and it seems like there are no other people. One woman sheltering alone with her dog dreamt that her dog disappeared — the dreams exaggerate how lonely the person is.
People sheltering with roommates or many family members tend to have exaggerated crowd dreams: The whole neighborhood has moved into their apartment, or the dreamer can’t find a place to sit down in her apartment because so many people are moving in. There are wish-fulfillment dreams: One sheltering in a crowded situation dreamed she found a secret room in her house that nobody else knew about. More of them are just exaggerations of what’s going on. One woman who was homeschooling her ten-year-old dreamed that the schools sent her a message saying that the child’s entire class would be arriving at her home to be homeschooled by her for the remainder of the pandemic. One man, who said he had been worried about finances, went into a grocery store with his mask on to buy something and his billfold had no money in it, and he remembered that his credit cards had been confiscated and he had no way to pay.
CoveyClub: Might our dreams clue us into what our subconscious is experiencing during these stressful times? Do dreams help us process disturbing emotions lurking in our subconscious?
Dr. Barrett: Just like with waking thought, lots of dreams just go in circles. You see some pretty repetitive anxiety dreams. Some are about solving things, getting past anxieties, working out things to do (as with waking thought). I think that also it’s interesting to notice what you dream about out of the various aspects of the pandemic: the fact that one person dreams about getting the virus themselves, while for others, it’s their parents that get the virus. Or it’s not dreaming about the virus at all, but about being in jail alone. Sometimes people are conscious about what is bothering them most, but other times they might not be in touch with it emotionally and the dream is identifying that on an emotional level it’s the sheltering at home or the worry about their parents.
CoveyClub: Can journaling about — or talking about — your dreams help you to process these anxious feelings?
Dr. Barrett: Yes. Because dreams are us thinking, just in this really different biochemical state, it is really interesting to systematically look at your nighttime thoughts. You get to know your unconscious better. Others might help you understand your dreams or feelings, but talking about your dreams is also just a deeper level of sharing in the pandemic that in general brings people closer together. Lots of people are saying that as they shelter at home and deal with aspects of the threat, that hearing people around the world talk about similar experiences and feelings make them feel more united with humanity. Because dreams are coming from a deep emotional level, when you share dreams and hear about others having similar dreams — about bugs attacking or forgetting the masks — it’s like one subconscious speaking to another.
CoveyClub: Is there any way to stop having bad dreams? Do we have any control over what we dream about at night?
Dr. Barrett: We don’t have perfect control, but we can do things that certainly influence our dreams. If someone is having repetitive anxiety dreams, the best technique is to think about what you would like to dream about, a person you are not getting to see in shelter-at-home, for example, or a place that you want to visit. Focus on this positive dream you want to have and form a visual image of the person or the place. If you’re really unable to form such imagery when you are awake, you might get a photo or other object that represents that person or place and put it on the night table so it’s the last thing you see before you turn off the light. Dreams are so visual, it could imprint on your brain and increase the odds that you’ll dream on a positive topic.
CoveyClub: This article is accompanied by a couple of artistic representations of your own dreams. Can you describe your pandemic-related dreams? What drove you to turn them into works of art? Is creating these dreamscapes your version of dream-journaling?
Dr. Barrett: Yes — all the art I make is from my dreams. Usually it’s a dream image that’s very vivid. But the emotions were the driving force in both dreams represented here. Both occurred pretty early on in the pandemic, when we were discussing what was coming for us. In the library dream, the image of the European plague doctor wandering in a landscape of COVID-19 particles captured the sense of what I felt was out there — which seemed more like the Black Death than the COVID-19 plague.
A week or more later, I dreamed that I knew something toxic was in the air outside. It wasn’t defined as COVID-19, just that something poisonous was in the air, and I had to go out with my cat for some reason. I was trying to put a hood over my cat’s head to protect him from breathing the toxic air, and he was struggling with me. Right at the end, I got the hood on, picked him up under one arm, and headed out into the toxic air. I think I had a hood on myself, but I was mostly focused on him.
I think that I had those dreams when I was really worried about what was happening, but was already aware that it was not going to affect me as much as some other people I cared about — and everyone on the planet. So even in that early one where I am pretty upset about it, it does depict me in a privileged, safe environment surrounded by books inside, and away from what was happening outside. In reality, I’m not in an elegant library, but I am sheltered at home with my books. I was very conscious then that I was deemed a “nonessential personnel” who wouldn’t be needed at the hospital, while my residents were being reassigned to do COVID screening. I think my cat was a stand-in for my trainees and all the people out there that I was aware were more exposed, and I am wanting to protect everyone as much as I was getting protected.