If you're having strange dreams during the pandemic, you are far from alone. People have been flooding social media with reports of weird dreams and vivid nightmares from the moment lockdown began.
This may be particularly terrifying for Stephen King fans who have read The Stand, in which an apocalyptic pandemic takes place, after which the survivors begin to share the same dream, in a supernatural event. Obviously, there's a much more rational explanation for why people are having nightmares during a pandemic. It would be weird, frankly, if people weren't having more nightmares when placed under the stress of protecting loved ones from a new virus, plus worries that range from economic to social due to large-scale lockdowns.
Deirdre Barrett, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, has been trying to keep track of how people's dreams are changing throughout the unfolding global health crisis.
“I have studied other dreams from periods of crisis: Americans after 9/11, Kuwaitis after the Iraqi occupation, and dreams from a Nazi POW camp," Barrett told PsyPost. "So as soon as the pandemic began, I was interested to see how these dreams would be similar to other crises and any distinctive elements they might have."
She conducted an online survey between March 23 and July 15, asking the 2,888 participants to describe their dreams during the pandemic. The 9,000 dreams studied ranged from common ones you may have experienced ("I looked down at my stomach and saw dark blue stripes. I 'remembered' these were the first sign of being infected with Covid-19") to the downright bizarre ("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!").
There were however patterns to the dreams, including who was affected more by them, and big differences from dreams before the pandemic began.
"There are some very distinctive metaphors for Covid-19," Barrett wrote in her new book Pandemic Dreams. "Bug-attack dreams and ones of invisible monsters. These reflect that this crisis is less visible or concrete than others we have faced."
If you'd like to avoid the nightmares.
For her new study, published in the journal Dreaming, Barrett used a text analysis program to analyze the dreams and put them into categories: positive emotions, negative emotions, anger, anxiety, sadness, and related to the body, health, or death. This data was compared to dream recollections and data captured before the pandemic began.
As you'd expect, given the stress people are under, there was a lot more negative emotions attached to dreams during the pandemic for men and women. However, the difference was more pronounced in women than in men. As well as having significantly lower incidents of positive emotions within dreams, women also experienced a lot more anxiety, sadness, anger, and dreams relating to health and death than before the pandemic. The pandemic appears to have less of an impact on the dreams of men, though they still showed slightly higher levels of anxiety, negative emotions, and involved more death than their pre-pandemic dreams.
Barrett acknowledges that there are limitations to her study, which focuses on gender differences and does not include an analysis of international data by country (where virus prevalence may differ), nor by time period. However, she plans to continue the survey in order to study how dreams change over the course of the pandemic.
"Over the past three months, dreams have progressed from fearful depictions of the mysterious new threat to impatience with restrictions, to more fear again as the world begins to reopen," she wrote in June when her book was published. "And dreams have just begun to consider the big picture: how society may change."