Deirdre Barrett, a professor of psychology at Harvard University who studies dreams, made this photo illustration of a recent COVID-19 dream she had.
Ronald Reagan pulled up to the curb in a sleek black town car, rolled down his tinted window, and beckoned for Lance Weller, author of the novel Wilderness, to join him. The long-dead president escorted Weller to a comic book shop stocked with every title Weller had ever wanted, but before he could make a purchase, Reagan swiped his wallet and skipped out the door.
Of course, Weller was dreaming. He is one of many people around the world—including more than 600 featured in just one study—who say they are experiencing a new phenomenon: coronavirus pandemic dreams.
Science has long suggested that dream content and emotions are connected to wellbeing while we’re awake. Bizarre dreams laden with symbolism allow some dreamers to overcome intense memories or everyday psychological stressors 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.
With hundreds of millions of people sheltering at home during the coronavirus pandemic, some dream experts believe that withdrawal from our usual environments and daily stimuli has left dreamers with a dearth of “inspiration,” forcing our subconscious minds to draw more heavily on themes from our past. In Weller’s case, his long-time obsession with comics came together with his constant scrolling through political posts on Twitter to concoct a surreal scene that he interpreted as a commentary on the world’s economic anxieties.
The virus is invisible, and I think that’s why it’s transformed into so many different things.
At least five research teams at institutions across multiple countries are collecting examples such as Weller’s, and one of their findings so far is that pandemic dreams are being colored by stress, isolation, and changes in sleep patterns—a swirl of negative emotions that set them apart from typical dreaming.
“We normally use REM sleep and dreams to handle intense emotions, particularly negative emotions,” says Patrick McNamara, an associate professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine who is an expert in dreams. “Obviously, this pandemic is producing a lot of stress and anxiety.”
During our dream states, stress sends the brain on a trip. The neurobiological signals and reactions that produce dreams are similar to those triggered by psychedelic drugs, according to McNamara. Psychedelics activate nerve receptors called serotonin 5-HT2A, which then turn off a part of the brain called the dorsal prefrontal cortex. The result is known as “emotional disinhibition,” a state in which emotions flood the consciousness, especially during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep, when we typically dream.
Though these processes happen nightly, most people don’t typically remember their dreams. Living through the coronavirus pandemic might be changing that due to heightened isolation and stress, influencing the content of dreams and allowing some dreamers to remember more of them. For one, anxiety and lack of activity decrease sleep quality. Frequent awakenings, also called parasomnias, are associated with increased dream recall. Latent emotions and memories from the previous day can also influence the content of dreams and one’s emotional response within the dream itself.
People closer to the pandemic threat—health-care workers, those living in epicenters, and those with affected family members—are more likely to experience outbreak-influenced dreams.
According to an ongoing study the Lyon Neuroscience Research Center in France initiated in March, the coronavirus pandemic has caused a 35 percent increase in dream recall among participants, with respondents reporting 15 percent more negative dreams than usual. A different study promoted by Associazione Italiana di Medicina del Sonno (the Italian Association of Sleep Medicine) is analyzing the dreams of Italians confined during the outbreak. Many of the subjects are experiencing nightmares and parasomnias in line with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Not surprisingly, some years ago when we studied survivors of the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake, we found that sleep disorders and also nightmares strictly depended on the proximity to the epicenter,” says Luigi De Gennaro, a professor of physiological psychology at the University of Rome who is working on the Italian coronavirus study. “In other words, the seismic map mostly overlapped that of sleep disturbances.”
Results from De Gennaro’s ongoing research and other work such as the Lyon study suggest that people closer to the pandemic threat—health-care workers, those living in epicenters, and those with affected family members—are more likely to experience outbreak-influenced dreams.
Multiple studies have shown that our waking activities create a slide reel of memories that influence the content of our dreams. Emotions carried over from the day can influence what we dream about and how we feel about it within the dream itself. Reducing or restricting sources of everyday memories—by being stuck alone in quarantine—may limit the content of dreams or cause the subconscious to reach for deeper memories.
It may seem obvious, but Finnish researchers have scientifically backed up the notion that peace of mind leads to a “positive dream affect,” wherein dreamers feel good about what is happening in their dreams. Anxiety, by contrast, is related to “negative dream affect,” the data show, which results in dreams that are frightening or otherwise upsetting.
Deirdre Barrett, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of The Committee of Sleep, has collected and analyzed dreams from the survivors of traumatic events, including the September 11 World Trade Center Attacks. Barrett has found that dreams in which people process traumas tend to follow two patterns: They either directly reference or re-enact a version of the traumatic event, or the dreams are fantastical, with symbolic elements standing in for the trauma.
For those seeking to wrest some control over bad dreams, focusing on the “bizarre” may help.
In Barrett’s latest sample of coronavirus dreams, which she began collecting in March with this survey, some participants reported dreaming they caught the virus or were dying of it. In another set of dreams Barrett collected, participants replaced fear of the virus with a metaphoric element, such as bugs, zombies, natural disasters, shadowy figures, monsters, or mass shooters.
“Except for the [dreams of] health-care workers, we don't see vivid visual imagery of people struggling to breathe on the ventilator,” Barrett says. “The virus is invisible, and I think that’s why it’s transformed into so many different things.”
For all their variety, the one thing many pandemic dreams have in common is how weird they seem to participants in the studies. “It may be one of the mechanisms used by the sleeping brain to induce emotional regulation,” says Perrine Ruby, a researcher at the Lyon Neuroscience Research Center.
For those experiencing coronavirus nightmares, there is growing evidence that so-called “dream mastery techniques” can alleviate their suffering.
When Barrett works with patients on “scripting” their own dreams, she often asks how they want the nightmare to be different. After a patient figures out their dream’s new direction, they can write it down and rehearse it before bed. These scripts range from more mundane solutions, like fighting off attackers, to more “dreamlike” scenarios, such as shrinking the attacker down to the size of an ant.
For those seeking to wrest some control over bad dreams, focusing on the “bizarre” may help, says Ruby, the researcher from Lyon. “Changing the context—the laws of physics and so on—may change the perspective [and] propose another angle, a shift in the understanding which may help to change or play down emotion.”