Read People’s Strange (And Similar) Pandemic Dreams
Dream researcher Dierdre Barrett has been collecting COVID dreams since March. Find out about the surprisingly common themes in dreams during the pandemic.
Dream researcher Dierdre Barrett has been collecting COVID dreams since March. Find out about the surprisingly common themes in dreams during the pandemic.
The following is an excerpt from Pandemic Dreams by Deirdre Barrett.
I looked down at my stomach and saw dark blue stripes. I “remembered” these were the first sign of being infected with COVID-19.
My spaceship was supposed to be heading back to earth but it got diverted to Saturn, and I ended up just living there alone.
My home was a COVID-19 test center. People weren’t wearing masks. I’m taken aback because I wasn’t asked to be a test site. I‘m worried that my husband and son (who actually lives out of state) will catch it because of my job as a healthcare worker.
I was a giant antibody. I was so angry about COVID-19 that it gave me superpowers, and I rampaged around attacking all the virus I could find. I woke so energized!
Since the COVID-19 pandemic swept around the world, and we began to shelter-in-place, people have reported unusually active dream lives. We’re remembering more dreams than usual, and those dreams are especially vivid and bizarre. The virus itself is the star of many—literally or in one of its metaphoric guises.
As a dream researcher at Harvard Medical School, I was immediately curious to see what our dream lives would tell us about our deepest reactions to this new disaster. I had studied the dreams of 9/11 survivors, of Kuwaitis during the first Gulf War, and dreams from POWs in WWII concentration camps. What patterns from these past crises would we see again? What dream metaphors would be unique to the current pandemic? And most important, how might a better understanding of our collective dream lives help us as we move through this crisis, and beyond?
In late March, I began to collect dream reports via an online survey. The response to this has been overwhelming—more than 9,000 dreams from over 3,700 dreamers, all around the world.
Pandemic Dreams discusses why our dreams have been so vivid since this began, and explores different forms the crisis is taking in our dreamlife—characterizing major themes in these dreams and what they symbolize. It offers guidance on how we can best utilize our newly supercharged dream lives to aid us through the crisis and beyond. It explains practical exercises for dream interpretation, reduction of nightmares, and incubation of helpful, problem-solving dreams. It also examines the larger arena of what these collective dreams tell us about our instinctive, unconscious responses to the threat and how we might integrate them for more livable policies through these times.
Many of the book’s generalizations and examples rely on my survey, but it also includes the longer conversations I’ve had with people about their dreams during the pandemic and draws on my past crisis dream collections for comparison. The book is divided into five chapters addressing different aspects of pandemic dreams; each ends with a practical exercise you can use with that category of dream.
I have a reoccurring dream that we get a knock on our door and outside are people in hazmat suits. The door no longer opens because we haven’t used it in so long. The hazmats tell us someone in our home has COVID-19 as confirmed by Parliament. Since were unable to get out, we are going to die of it.
A common category of dreams in my survey is simply of catching the virus. Dreamers have trouble breathing or spike a fever. Other symptoms are more dreamlike: one woman sees a dark aura from a person she passes on the street touch her body and knows that it has infected her. Another looks down and notices bright blue stripes on her stomach and remembers that’s the first sign of infection. Variations include one’s children or elderly parents coming down with the virus.
Dreamers may be tested for the disease. Many tests are swabs much like the waking procedure. Others deviate from real life:
My husband and I are taking a test to see if we have the virus. They look just like those white plastic home-pregnancy tests. Both of us have a pink line—positive.
I’m taking a COVID-19 test. But it’s a sit-down multiple choice exam and I can’t figure out any of the answers. They tell me I failed and I have the disease.
Realizing one has the virus is often the end of the dream. Other times, it initiates a search for help. An array of attitudes toward the medical system play out on the dream stage. Some dreamers struggle endlessly to get to a hospital (“The streets in my town have changed; I don’t recognize anything and people won’t direct me—they just cough.”) or try to get attention once there (“the medical staff was marching and staring straight ahead; I wondered if they had been replaced by androids”). Others locate a doctor or nurse who gives them an injection or pills to cure them. Many times it is more ambiguous: “I get a shot of something to relieve symptoms and potentially cure the disease but it’s unclear if it will work.”
Unconscious fears of doctors and of government show up in dreams of menace in the guise of aid:
I’m about to be given a shot that will treat it, but I saw “cyanide” on the syringe and realized they were euthanizing everyone that had the virus.
At the top of the escalator, they were giving a vaccine. But everyone who got vaccinated staggered away and died.
It’s interesting to note what the particular dream scenario depicts about the dreamer’s sense of vulnerability, their own efficacy, and the ability or willingness of healthcare professionals to help.
Mortuaries are another source of death-anxiety and a staple of horror film settings. One woman dreamed of evil morticians similar to other’s depictions of doctors-as-villain:
I am walking past a building and come to a white door with a sign which reads: “Only Self Embalming in Florida” (BTW….I live in New York).
So, I walk in.
I see a white bathtub with a gray liquid on the bottom and the man in the white lab coat says, “We dispose of the elders.”
I go through a door into the adjacent room and whatever was going on in there, I realized the Elders they were embalming and cremating were not dead yet.
I ran out of there……and woke up!
A few dreamers are unafraid when they get the disease. They’re using the possibility to play out practical plans. One mother dreams that she and her children all have the virus, denoted by white patches at the back of their throat. She calls her supervisor at work to say she will not be coming into the office for the next two weeks while they quarantine. She’d been wanting to work from home at the time of the dream. Another dream found an ingenious way to distance the dreamer from her fears:
I was playing a Sims-like game, only it was more immersive, and in VR. There was a Sim who was me—she looked like me, had my name. She was also in quarantine. She wandered around her house, being generally bored and looking for things to do. There was a sidebar of active effects and inventory. Suddenly, in that sidebar, there popped up a new effect: “COVID-19.” My Sim was flushed. She started having trouble breathing. She fell to the floor, writhing, holding her throat, her chest. I watched as the little digital figure fought against the tightness in her chest, and she started sweating profusely. Then I woke up. Weirdly, it wasn’t an anxiety dream. I’m sure the dream itself stemmed from my worries about the pandemic, but I had no emotional reaction to the dream itself.
Some dreams that seem to be about the pandemic, draw their imagery from science fiction:
After watching Contagion, I dream that I get COVID-19 and can physically feel myself suffocating, vision blacking out, physical pain. I know I’m dying.
… My friends were there in their Outbreak type PPE and I got upset that they had PPE and I didn’t.
… and it’s like that scene in Pandemic where trash has piled up …
We’ll get to suggestions about managing anxiety dreams soon, but a heads-up now: bedtime streaming of disaster flicks about viruses devastating the planet won’t make that list.
A final category of literal dreams about the virus dramatizes the necessary precautions for the dreamer. Any time we are learning new material, it is likely to show up in our dreams. This has been documented for everything from foreign languages to video games. Memory consolidation seems to be one of the tasks in which dreams play a role. In late March and April, people were learning to distance six feet apart, wear masks, and wash their hands and surfaces more than they ever had. Their dreams practiced these precautions. Dreamers might realize they aren’t wearing masks and have come too close to someone. In other cases, the dreamers do everything perfectly but another character coughs on them or stands too close. The dream often starts in a blissfully pandemic-unaware world and remembering our current situation provides a motivating jolt:
Recurring dream: I am in the process of trying to do something that is otherwise Important or responsible, like waiting in line to vote or holding my best friend ‘s brand new baby, and suddenly realize I’m not wearing a mask. I feel ashamed and dirty, and like I need to leave immediately, but I haven’t yet done the thing I came there to do, and I leave feeling guilty about both.
I take my elderly mother, aunt, and friend into a crowded mall. Suddenly I realize that I forgot about the virus and nobody, including us, has masks on.
Early on in the pandemic, I dreamed that I ran into a European friend who gave me a double-cheek kiss greeting and then we both recoiled in horror and tried to figure out how to undo it.
I am in a packed restaurant, eating, laughing; I feel ebullient. I’m having drinks with my friends. We all reconvene in the restroom when I suddenly realize how dangerous the situation is. No masks! No social distancing! Too many people laughing and talking loudly right next to one another! I panic and try to explain but no one will listen to me. I’m frantic to get my friends to understand the danger repeatedly but they blow me off.
Some safety-practicing dreams are more surreal:
I’m at my chorus rehearsal. Several people are coughing. I feel it would be gauche to tell them they have the virus, so I just try to hold my breath as I sing.
When I woke up, all I could remember was that I’d done something wrong or violated a rule, and my punishment was having to shake an infinite line of hands.
I am at the sunny, yellow ballroom dance studio. No one else is around. I am stretching. Another me is tucked up in the corner, holding her (my) knees up to her chest. I and me have to maintain our distance from each other.
One young Australian woman who had completely ignored the early announcements of safety measures which she regarded as absurd had a dream that pointed out the necessity dramatically to her waking self:
I had a dream that I threw a party after new restrictions were put in place, and a comically large amount of people attended. It felt very crowded, and I didn’t realize how risky throwing a party is in these times was until later on in the dream, when Scott Morrison (Australian Prime Minister) sent out secret agents to bust people breaking the new isolation rules.
The dreamer said she awakened from the dream with a new appreciation that she had better attend to the health guidelines she’d been ignoring for the past week.
There was a tarantula that was somehow also COVID-19 coming thru the mail slot. (I have no mail slot)
I dreamt I had a roach infestation and that two of my friends had got it and one had died.
In one I remember very clearly, strange bugs (like a centipede or millipede) were released into a room where I was sleeping. We could only find one bug of many, so I was terrified to sleep until the other bugs were located.
Not all dreams about the virus are literal. After 9/11, I saw some metaphoric dreams. However, due to the dramatic images associated with that event, a majority dreamed of buildings falling, planes smashing into things and/or hijackers with knives. Our dreaming mind is intensely visual, so when it feels fear, it searches for an image to match that feeling. Bugs express what many are feeling about COVID-19. Swarms of flying insects—bees, hornets, wasps, gnats, horseflies—attack. Masses of toxic worms writhe in front of dreamers. Armies of cockroaches race toward them. Bedbugs, stink bugs. One woman dreamed of giant grasshoppers with vampire fangs.
They are the definitive metaphor now partly because of our slang use of the word “bug” to mean a virus or other illness, as in “I’ve got a bug.” As I mentioned in the Home Alone 2 cardboard cutouts example, dreams often represent words with visual images in pun-like fashion. At a deeper level, however, lots of tiny entities that cumulatively could harm or kill you makes a perfect metaphor for COVID-19.
I dreamed they had started evacuating London but I was stuck there. I could see a “ghost” or “force” moving from one apartment to the other. It was possessing people and moving through them. Then it jumped from the building across onto my balcony and into me—that’s when I woke up terrified.
… It was right behind me, breathing in low heaves and grabbing with invisible long fingers and hands. It was a dark, violent and hungry entity.
I’m with my family and lover and we’re being chased by silent, almost invisible rats. I only see their tiny eyes and flashes of teeth behind us as we run.
Another metaphoric creature unique to this epidemic is the invisible monster. Some dreamers must cross exposed outdoor areas and know there are monsters that could kill them but which they can’t spot. Others wander through building complexes and hear steps behind them or spot subtle shadows moving when they can’t directly see the monsters. One woman dreamed that she was watching others being knocked down one by one. Terrible wounds appeared on their bodies until they died but she couldn’t see the attacking creature. She remembered that it could jump to anyone within six feet after their former victim’s death and realized she was standing too close. As with bugs, the invisible monsters haven’t appeared after other crises but are unique to the elusive imagery of the coronavirus.
My mother and grandmother are deceased. At the beginning of the outbreak, they both came to me in my dream. I was totally surprised and happy to see them again. I asked why they were there and they said in unison, “We are here to get you.” I knew what that meant and asked, “Now?” To which they both nodded yes. I said let me pack first, they smiled at each other, laughed and said, “you won’t need anything”. But they let me pack anyway. Instead of clothes, I picked up a photo frame that was showing movies of my life and memories with them. I laughed and cried and realized, it’s been a good life but I was still hesitant to leave. They slowly walked out of the room and faded away. I knew I was supposed to follow them and headed for the door. I haven’t dreamt about them or the virus since. I hope it was my fears manifesting themselves and not a sign of what is coming.
In Death Shall Have No Dominion, Charles Jackson observes, “The dead have largely lost their social importance, visibility, and impact in American society. Connection between the world of the dead and that of the living has been largely severed and the dead world is disappearing. It is a radical departure because for three centuries prior, life and death were not held apart.” The dominion of the dead in dreams, however, has not diminished. The most distinctive characteristics of dreams include the breaching of waking logic, social taboos, and denial. Although modern trends may have decreased belief in the veracity of the dead returning in dreams, they have done nothing to stem their occurrence.
Dreams from the pandemic survey feature summons from the dead worthy of folktales. One woman is invited to break lockdown for a family picnic, but, upon arrival, discovers that the other attendees are the deceased branch of her family, rather than the living. Another dreamer arrives at a fancy party, and is offered a seat next to a corpse. A woman orders an Uber and a hearse arrives for her instead.
The loss of loved ones and desire to be with them again has people dreaming about the deceased in normal times. But currently news stories of ambulances carrying off people who are not seen by their families again or of bodies in refrigerated trucks parked outside hospitals and nursing homes stir up a new horror about mortality—and pandemic dreams are often about the immediate awareness that we could die of this.
One woman sees her deceased loved ones in a classic tunnel of light, but then she sees something else behind that vision:
I dreamt I was having a near death experience. I was in a dark tunnel with a light at one end. My dead relatives were there beckoning me towards the light. My mom said, “Come dear.” I realized it wasn’t really her, and I shouted, “That is not an expression my real mother would use—show your true selves!” The people turned into demonic vampire bats. They were biting a man who had died, and sucking out his memories. I could see hollow outlines of those already emptied floating at the end of the tunnel of light. I fled—presumably to the living.
Any horrible event can be cast as the source of fear the dreamer feels about the invisible coronavirus:
This recurring dream started when COVID was becoming recognized as a pandemic. In the dream, I was with my family at the beach. I knew there was a tsunami coming because I could see the signs—the tide going out. I was trying to tell my family and they thought I was over-reacting. My son was particularly annoyed with me for ruining the vacation. I started telling strangers there was a tsunami coming and they ignored me, too. Finally a huge wave came in and battered the houses. I knew this was just the start so I was trying to round up my family and others, telling them that, “We need to leave now.” When I awoke, I knew this dream had to do with all of the effort I had been making to get protective masks for my employees and prepare my workplace for the pandemic, as well as convince my family to take protective measures.
Tsunamis, tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, and mass shooters are some of the common metaphors one sees in dreams about any disaster. One dreamer covered much of this list until she made one significant life change:
I had constant dreams of glowing jellyfish, crumbling and cracking roads that were impossible to get out of without rolling the car, family members lined up on the wharf with a tidal wave coming, flying whales, blimps crashing over the sea, pushing boats across coral & rocks to safety with family and friends in the boat, rollercoasters, hiding & running & packing belongings…..but all catastrophic dreams came to an abrupt halt when I made the decision to leave work and stay home with the virus starting to get out of hand….the VERY first night!!
Metaphoric dreams may also make direct reference to some detail of this pandemic—interspersing the scary visual metaphor with actual guidance. New York’s Governor Cuomo tells people they have to shelter in place because of the swarms of bugs or shooters in the streets. President Trump announces there is no tsunami, calling it “fake news.” Again our oh-so-visual dreams seem to have produced images worthy of these precautions and debates.
“Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”
– Fyodor Dostoevsky, Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, 1863
Research on ironic process theory, or “the white bear problem,” confirms that deliberate attempts to muffle specific thoughts make them more likely to surface, so it is unproductive to try to suppress anxiety-producing or depressing topics. If you are disturbed by repetitive anxiety dreams, you do not want to expend energy struggling not to have them. The best remedy is to think of what dreams you would enjoy.
Perhaps there’s a loved one you can’t be with right now who you’d like to visit with in your dreams? Or a favorite vacation spot? Many people enjoy flying dreams. Maybe you have one all-time favorite dream you’d like to revisit? With what we call “dream incubation,” borrowed from the term used at the ancient Greek dream temples, you can suggest to yourself what you would like to dream as you fall asleep.
Dreams are extremely visual, so an image is especially likely to get through to your dreaming mind. Picture that favorite person, place, or yourself soaring above it all. Or replay that favorite dream in detailed scenes. If images don’t come easily to you, place a photo or other objects related to the topic on your night table as the last thing to view before turning off the light. Repeat to yourself what you want to dream about as you drift off to sleep.
The technique makes for a pleasant experience as you’re falling asleep and greatly raises the odds that your dreaming mind will honor your request.
Copyright © 2020 by Deirdre Barrett
Deirdre Barrett is an assistant professor of Psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.