The coronavirus has brought with it an epidemic of unusual dreams. Over the past few weeks, several people have reported strange and vivid nightmare-like dreams. Over on Twitter, a quick search for #pandemicdreams brings up a plethora of people searching for solace about their nightmares. Many involve fear of death, threats against loved ones and the anxiety associated with venturing out into an unfamiliar world of empty streets, closed stores and potentially infected people.
However, over-imaginative individuals aren’t the only one experiencing this phenomenon. Researchers at both, the Dream Research Institute in London and Harvard University in Massachusetts, are currently conducting separate dream surveys about what they have labelled ‘pandemic dreams’.
What are pandemic dreams?
A Twitter account – @IDreamofCovid19 – is collating tweeted experiences. One reads: “I dreamt Michelle Obama gave me a hug, which would ordinarily be such a nice dream, except that it was set in the present so instead it morphed into a nightmare of my worrying that I gave her coronavirus and vice versa.”
Science suggests that one’s dreams and emotions reflect on their conscious well being. However, bizarre dreams laden with symbolism allow some dreamers to overcome intense memories or everyday psychological stress; that too, within the safety of their subconscious. Nightmares, on the other hand, can be warning signs of anxieties that we might not otherwise perceive in our waking lives.
According to Deirdre Leigh Barrett, the author of the Harvard dream survey, respondents have reported dreams that explicitly relate to the coronavirus, while others have detailed more metaphorical dreams that hint at the pandemic, for example about insects.
The fact that people are now finally sleeping more is among the more straight forward explanations for this phenomenon. Which makes sense because, hardly any commute is taking place, allowing them to sleep in, at the very least. “A lot of it is just watching slightly sleep-deprived people catching up on sleep, and that people who are letting themselves sleep a natural amount at night are getting more and more dreams,” says Deirdre Barrett, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of books including The Committee of Sleep and Trauma and Dreams.
Last night I dreamt I was a vampire slayer but it was still during quarantine so I was just chasing bad guys round an empty swansea
— Rhe (@Rheayp95x) April 15, 2020
This, Barrett explains, is impacting the amount of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep people are getting. In a typical sleep cycle, REM follows a period of deep sleep and is when dreams tend to be most vivid. With more people sleeping for longer periods, and not being woken artificially by alarm clocks, they’re experiencing more complete sleep cycles – and more REM as a result.
“It’s hardly surprising that right now, people are dreaming more vividly,” says Brighton-based psychotherapist, Matthew Bowes. “People tend to attach more importance to dreams and dream more at times of transition and in times of crisis, like when changing jobs or when there’s been a death in the family. Now, we’re experiencing this in the collective because our whole world has been turned upside down.”
Bowes explains that dreams are about emotional processing. When someone is dreaming, the areas of the brain associated with this processing are 30% more active in REM sleep. “At the same time,” he adds, “the part of the brain which we use for rational, logical thinking is actually switched off; so that’s why we have this sense that we’re in a dream, without being able to think about the fact that we’re in it.”
Last night I dreamed that I needed to get to the store because we were out of random things (I remember laundry detergent and gatorade) so I walked to the target down the road. I got in there and suddenly realized that I didn't have gloves or a mask. Neither did anyone else.
— Zoë Mikel-Stites (@iambutabookworm) April 14, 2020
How is fear projected in our dreams?
Health experts say these strange dreams are not surprising. Sleeplessness and changes in sleep patterns are part of how understandably people are reacting during the pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) may be stressful for people,” the CDC says. “Fear and anxiety about a disease can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults and children.”
One key element of dreaming that differentiates it from reality is the lack of metaphorical constructs. When talking about emotions while awake, we often envelop them in metaphors, for example: ‘My relationship is on the rocks’, or ‘The rug has been pulled from under my feet’. Bowes says: “The difference is that when we’re asleep, we are actually on the rock – we’re participating in a trauma where we find ourselves, rather than just thinking about it. We’re in the metaphor, so to speak.”
The newly-authoritarian state we’re living in undeniably worsens this stress, whereby we cannot leave our houses at will. In this context, it wouldn’t be unusual to experience dreams that relate to authority, like imagining yourself back in school.
“The language that the government has been using is derived from prison imagery – lockdown is a prison term – which taps into our early impression of authority relationships,” continues Bowes. “School is one of our first experiences of a kind of incarceration – a place where you’re very rule-bound and can’t leave the school premises without permission.”
There’s even more to Bowes’ suggestion about the link between our dreams and society’s increasingly strict restrictions. According to him, there’s a theory commonly accepted in psychotherapy which says “we are multiple”. It states that each individual has several versions of themselves inside themselves which are all based on our pasts.
“A lot of us have authority figures in us,” Bowes explains, “Like inner critics. Right now, what’s been going on in the outside world is tapping into the authority figure that I have within me, and this is then cropping up in my thinking and my dreams.”
Corona virus dreams are starting, I dreamt I was taking the bus and chewed my nails, and literally the Kill Bill shrieks started as my brain pointed out all the things I had touched on my way to my seat.
My brain: pic.twitter.com/sY68lr14Vu
— Deanna Brigman (@DMBrigman) April 13, 2020
The anatomy of dreams
Dreams have long been the fascination of psychoanalysts, most notably Sigmund Freud, who believed dreams represented wish fulfilment. With all of us isolated, it is also possible that our dreams reflect our yearning for normality. “There’s definitely an element of missing one’s regular life,” says Bowes.
He added that we take a lot of information throughout the day. This includes the news, empty shelves in the supermarket, maintaining physical distance etc. Our dreams process this information by comparing it to our own historical memories. That’s why we see images derived from memory, like the nostalgia of a secure place.
You can have nightmares about your loved ones dying of coronavirus or trapped in The Chokey from Matilda. However, one thing’s for sure: it’s all a totally normal unconscious response to a very weird IRL situation. As Bowes concludes: “We’re going through a time where there is an enormous amount to process. Anxieties from a pre-corona period are going through exacerbations. We’ve got a whole world on our plate now – nobody knows where they are.”
The right way to sleep
The Sleep Foundation has issued some guidelines to help people sleep during the COVID-19 outbreak:
- Be specific about sleep. Set a wind-down time before bed, sleep time and a wake-up time. The wind-down time can include “light reading, stretching, and meditating. You can also spend time preparing for bed, like putting on pyjamas and brushing your teeth.”
- Incorporate routines to provide time cues during the day, including showering and dressing, even if you aren’t going out.
- Reserve the bed for sleep and try to make it up daily. Practice lounging in other rooms.
- If you can’t get to sleep, “Get out of bed and do something relaxing. Try to stay in very low light, and then head back to bed to try to fall asleep.”
- Don’t use electronic devices in bed or immediately before going to bed. “The blue light produced by electronic devices has been found to interfere with the body’s natural sleep-promoting processes. These include mobile phones, tablets, and computers,” the Sleep Foundation says.