Nightmares of Social Distancing

People are having scary dreams about the virus, and about each other.

Posted May 21, 2020

Kelly Bulkeley
Source: Kelly Bulkeley

An increasing number of pandemic-related dreams revolve around social distancing, especially the threat posed by people who fail to comply with safe social distancing practices, a recent survey suggests. These nightmares highlight the psychological stress many people feel in trying to follow the rules themselves, while worrying what to do about other people who are not complying with these guidelines.

Below are excerpts from a collection of dream reports gathered in a survey I recently commissioned from YouGov. Field work for the online survey was conducted on May 5-7, 2020, with 3,031 American adults. In a previous survey from early April, the pandemic-related dreams included several common themes: fear of catching the disease, fear of loved ones catching it, difficulty breathing, threats to work/finances, and apocalypse. The same themes are also present in the new survey’s dreams, but with much more focus on the disorienting dangers of trying to survive in a world of social distancing.

The dream reports have been sorted into three groups, representing three kinds of social distancing threats: from oneself, from other people, and from public places. (Gender and age are indicated in parentheses.)

Oneself as a Threat

Many people worry intensely about the possibility of forgetting the social distance guidelines, inadvertently endangering others and embarrassing themselves.     

I constantly have dreams that I have gone to a store and forgot my mask or forgot to social distance. (F, 47)

Forgetting to wear my mask and being shamed in an elevator. (F, 64)

Panicking because I forgot to wear a mask in public. (M, 24)

Dreamed I was at a party and then chastised myself for being so stupid. (M, 60)

I dreamed I was driving to the store and forgot my mask which panicked me. (F, 66)

We had a chance to go somewhere for a social event, but the whole time I was worried that we should be social distancing. (M, 62)

I was upset because I was at a party and then realized I was drinking even though I was pregnant and then I realized everyone wasn’t social distancing. (F, 27)

Other People as a Threat

Many people are having nightmares about others who are not following social distancing guidelines, putting the dreamer and everyone else in danger. These dreams express feelings of vulnerability and distress towards people who fail to show awareness of or concern about their unsafe behavior.

My dream is that I am in a crowded room where people are infected and the infection is spreading visibly through the crowd, getting closer and closer to me and my family and no one is demonstrating any concern, continuing to laugh and party in the room. (F, 40)

Being crowded by people who were not keeping their distance. (M, 63)

I show up to a store and it is too crowded or no one is wearing masks and I feel scared. (F, 33)

I dreamed I had to return to work (at a library) but the library was still closed to patrons. I had to go outside to get books from the book drop and members of the public were crowding outside, angry that they couldn't come inside. I was trying to stay six feet away from each one but found it impossible. (F, 34)

Stuck in an elevator with a person having the virus and no mask. (F, 65)

Was out in public, waiting in line. People around me refused to remain 6' away and would not socially distance themselves. (M, 43)

I believe someone in my family has contracted the virus and was continuing to go out and we had an argument about it. (F, 24)

We are all standing around talking when I realize that none of us are wearing masks. I try to talk my friends into putting them on but we realize that it is too late to take precautions and that soon we will die. (F, 72)

Public Places as a Threat

Several people’s dreams focus on going to places that used to be part of normal life, but now feel potentially dangerous because people are not abiding by social distancing rules.

I was shopping in IKEA and then realized nobody had a mask on, then wondered why the store was open and what I was doing there (F, 66)

I was in church. I was the only elder in attendance. I became dismayed that the pastor had called the congregation back too soon, endangering kids and young people. (F, 68)

I had to go to a professional development conference for work that was crowded and no one was wearing masks or seemed concerned with distancing. A number of these dreams I've had have involved being in spaces or places with other people not wearing mask or keeping distance, causing me to feel in danger and out of control. (F, 31)

Dreams like these certainly reflect the private feelings and concerns of the individual dreamers. They also reflect important themes in our collective reality, illuminating the interpersonal tensions of this pandemic era and perhaps warning us of potential dangers.

More details about the findings of this survey can be found in an earlier Psychology Today post.