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Gus Jacobson, an 8th grade English teacher in Queens, found his school had changed in a subtle and sinister way: all the walls and desks were a little bit rotten. “Like, when you’re in the woods, and you see a rotten tree stump where the wood is so soft you can break it apart with little effort,” he said.
There wasn’t anyone else around, and he had an unsettling awareness he shouldn’t be there—“that other people had more sense than me by not going to school, and the structure itself was crumbling.”
That's when Jacobson woke up; this is a recurring dream he's been having since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The first night he had it, he had been anxious and nauseated before going to sleep. The dream evoked the same queasy feeling.
Jacobson isn't the only one having unusual COVID-19-tinged dreams. Online, people have been sharing how the pandemic that takes up nearly every minute of their attention in their waking lives has started to trickle into their sleeping life too.
Sometimes the dreams are very realistic. A 60-year-old retired nurse in San Jose had a dream where she returned to work in the ER. “Patients being intubated in the hall beds,” she said. “Utter chaos. Waiting room full. Everyone coughing. Manager sitting in office wearing N95 mask, yet we had none. I woke up sweating.”
Other dreams are more symbolic. Danielle, 27, who lives in New York, said that in a recent dream, she was wearing a choker that was too tight. “I couldn’t breathe and was gasping for air. I couldn’t loosen the choker no matter how much I tried and no one was able to help me,” she said. “I think this came after reading in articles how people sick with covid are gasping for air [and there are] not enough ventilators.”
Then there are the nonsensical dreams: Klára Ottisová, who lives in Prague, said that she dreamt that the Czech Republic’s prime minister replaced the current leader of the central crisis committee with a yellow rubber duck that normally resides in her bathroom. Tim, a 23-year-old in Sacramento dreamt he found a book that Tina Fey had written five years ago titled “Covid-19.” “She called out everything several years in advance, said it would be the collapse of civilization,” Tim said. “Later in the dream she got in trouble for it and so did I for some reason.”
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Dreaming has long been a fascination for scientists, psychologists, and regular people alike. While some consider dreams a benign byproduct of the sleeping brain, there's also accumulating evidence that dreams help with memory formation, processing complicated emotions, or as a way to practice facing threats or dangers. Dreams might help lead us to new insights and problem-solving; other research has supported that dreaming could be therapeutic.
With coronavirus dreams, we're learning something more simple that we've known before: Sweeping historical events have a way of making it into our subconscious. In the book, The Third Reich of Dreams, writer Charlotte Beradt collected about 75 dreams from people living during Hitler's rule. One dream from 1933 was about a mind-reading machine—one of several about thought control. “These dreams—these diaries of the night—were conceived independently of their authors’ conscious will,” Beradt wrote. “They were, so to speak, dictated to them by dictatorship.”
If we follow this line of reasoning, our dreams have been dictated to us by the virus. Silly, scary, or strange, having coronavirus dreams right now reveals, at the very least, that we're all going through something together and trying to figure out what these events mean to us, the people we love, and the lives we lead.
Jeanne, a 37-year-old in Brooklyn, recently had a vivid dream in which an entire wall in her home collapsed, leaving it open to the street. Over time, as the economic situation deteriorated, people from outside started to come in and live in her former bedroom.
“Everyone was sick and angry and the social contract was breaking down,” Jeanne said. “We thought about trying to escape, but there were childhood mementos in the former bedroom, drawings and manuscripts and stuff, that we wanted to take with us, enough of them that it was a job getting them out. Most of the dream was spent watching the situation erode and trying to make sorties into the bedroom to bring pieces out without attracting too much attention.”
Daniel, a 32-year-old in New York City dreamt that people kept encroaching on him as he tried to social-distance. “They would keep following me around and then they would attempt to shake my hand, or cough towards me quietly,” he said. “I figured out that they were trying to get me infected with COVID. At the end, all the people infected with COVID came out of their apartments, as if I were the last ‘victim.’”
Dreams tend to prioritize what’s emotional, said Mark Blagrove, a professor of psychology at Swansea University in the U.K. who studies sleep and dreams. In experiments he and his colleagues have done, they’ve had people keep diaries, and found that the emotional parts had a greater chance of becoming part of a dream than the non-emotional parts.
Emotions are not currently in short supply. People may be having bereavement dreams, mourning people or jobs they’ve already lost. They could be struggling with staying at home or dealing with anxiety and fear from having to continue to go to work. This is combined with a shift in scheduling: some people are staying at home and might be sleeping more that they're used to, Blagrove said. We often have REM sleep at the end of the night, and so an increase in sleep time, along with more time for rumination when we wake up, could result in these emotional COVID-19 dreams sticking around.
Many are about someone close to the dreamer getting sick, along with more metaphorical dreams about bugs, like maggots or worms, or hordes of flying bugs.
Deirdre Barrett, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of The Committee of Sleep, has started to collect COVID-19 dreams to analyze and compare to dreams before the pandemic; she currently has about 50 dreams. (You can contribute yours through this link.) She said many submissions so far are about someone very close to the dreamer getting sick, along with more metaphorical dreams about bugs, like maggots or worms, or hordes of flying bugs.
Here’s a section from one bug dream: “Suddenly, I feel pain in my right shoulder, and see a huge grasshopper-like insect there. It has already chewed through the fabric of my sweater and is now gouging my flesh. Someone immediately comes over and helps me get rid of it…[Then], a thin white worm lands on my hip. Its touch is like acid, also burning through my clothes…As my friends gently tug on it, the worm becomes [an] obscene thick coil of sickly white, at least an inch thick. I cry out as it’s pulled out, now blood smeared, until it’s completely out of me.”
Barrett has studied dreams brought on by unique circumstances before: The dreams of 79 British officers who were prisoners of war between 1940 and 1942. The dreams were recorded by Kenneth Hopkins, who wanted to use them for a doctoral dissertation, but died of emphysema two years into captivity. He took notes daily of their dreams, totaling around 640.
Barrett said that the soldiers' dreams fixated on their isolation and quarantine. Escape was a common theme, as was dreaming about regular activities that they missed, like eating out. One, from a man who dreamed he got to go home:
“Went out and met my sister and a friend at a restaurant and had a large dinner. Then went to another pub and had some food there. Then went to another pub and had more food. Went back to the first pub and found a good mixture of drinks — barley wine and mild ale. Then I had a dish of prunes and custard into which a bottle of ale had also been poured. I rejoined my sister and had another meal. Then back to the pub and had a large mixture of various snacks.”
“I think we're going to start seeing more of that,” Barrett said. “Right now I think it's more of the looming danger of it everybody is focused on and we haven't gotten real settled in to get bored and frustrated and cabin fever yet.”
Help, I can't wake up! A painting by Deirdre Barrett, based on one of her recent coronavirus dreams, featuring “a plague doctor wandering across a landscape of COVID-19.”
So, what do they all mean? Barrett said that while “dream dictionaries” and other too-literal interpretations don’t hold much weight, she does think that the details of dreams matter—it just depends on what they mean to you.
“I like to say that dreams are just thinking in a different biochemical state, and I think we’re still grappling with all the same issues that concern us when we’re awake,” she said. “Our hopes and fears, a lot about our emotional personal life, work life—but we're thinking in this mode that is much more visual, it's less linear and logical, it's less grounded in the immediate present and short-term future than when we are awake.”
Barrett suggests that if you're having strange dreams right now, to ask yourself to define each character, setting, or action in a dream and see if a personal significance emerges. For example, if someone dreams of a dog, a strict symbolic meaning won’t be much help because dogs mean different things to different people. Some might be afraid of them because they were bitten by one when they were little. Others consider them creatures that need to be taken care of, like children. Others will view their primary trait as loyalty, companionship, or friendship.
As for whether COVID dreams are therapeutic, Barrett said it can go both ways, just like waking thoughts. Sometimes, thinking about the pandemic and working through your feelings on them can be helpful. “But you can get stuck in just anxious obsessing that makes you more anxious or takes time away from attention to other things,” she said.
A repeat COVID dream here and there is to be expected. But if they become incredibly repetitive, they could be slipping into the category of trauma dreams. “These just copy an awful thing again and again,” Blagrove said. “That happens often to people who have post-traumatic stress disorder.”
When divulging a dream, you inadvertently share something very deep and personal, even if you don’t realize it.
Another way to process your dreams is to talk about them. Blagrove and his colleagues have been investigating what the effects are of considering your own dreams, and found that when people share their dreams, it can increase empathy and help with communication around what people are going through right now.
Like, the fear we’re all feeling, and the sense that ordinary life has taken a surreal, and horrific turn, for example, manifested in one dream Barrett has collected:
I had a dream that Oprah was trying to kill me and my gang of friends. We escaped her henchmen, but she captured us and sent us to a giant gymnasium filled with hundreds of people, all spread out on mattresses on the floor. Then, Oprah comes to the mic and announces that some of her lucky guests are going to get an amazing ‘happy ending.' She then proceeds to take out a handheld circular saw. I wake up out of terror.
Then there’s the sense of foreboding we feel about our families, and our own health:
I was with my mother. I had gone for doing a test of coronavirus in a hospital. It was positive. My mother told me that if I got the virus she would get it too. They were measuring the percent of virus that people have in the body. At one moment they gave me a lethal injection, for me to die. I can't remember what happened after that.
By sharing your dreams with someone, you may ignite a sense of connection that we're all craving right now, Blagrove said. Because when divulging a dream, you inadvertently share something very deep and personal, even if you don’t realize it before uttering it out loud.
Because of this, Blagrove often compares dreams to blushing—the blushing of the mind. “The blushing reflex reveals yourself to other people,” he said. “It’s useful because it makes people a bit more honest, forces them to be honest, even if they don't want to be. People have better recognition of who else around you is feeling emotional, or embarrassed, or delicate even. Maybe our dreams are like that.”
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