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Common Themes in Dreams About the Pandemic

Nightmarish themes are plaguing people’s dreams during the crisis.

Kelly Bulkeley
Source: Kelly Bulkeley

The first wave of dreams relating to the coronavirus pandemic reveal how people are reacting to fear and anxiety coming from all directions. Fears for oneself, for one’s family and friends, for the whole world—all threaten to consume people in their dreams as in their waking lives. A few dreams do show glimmers of hope and positivity for the future, but right now they are rare green shoots amid a dark and frightening dreamscape for many people.

To be clear, not everyone is having these dreams. According to a new survey I recently commissioned from YouGov, only 7% of the American adult population answered yes when directly asked if they had dreamed within the last month of the Covid-19 crisis. More people ages 18-34 said they had had a pandemic-related dream (9%) than people 35-54 (8%) or people 55+ (5%). This is consistent with the findings mentioned in an earlier post discussing the same survey: More people in the younger age group reported an increase in overall dream recall in the past month. (Field work for the online survey was conducted on April 1-3, 2020, with 2,477 American adults. The results have been weighted to approximate the U.S. adult population.)

Perhaps that figure will grow as time goes on. As it is, 7% of all Americans 18+ amounts to around 14 million people, a considerable number. For comparison, two surveys I conducted during 2016 asked if people had dreamed of the U.S. presidential campaign, and the responses were 7% (May) and 8% (December). This suggests that within just a few weeks, the coronavirus pandemic has already had as much impact on people’s dreams as a long, hotly-contested presidential race.

The dream reports provided by participants provide a further window into the psychological effects of the crisis. Several patterns immediately stand out (gender and age in parentheses).

Fear of catching the disease. This includes worries about being tested, social distancing, isolation, and infecting others.

  • Contracting and dying alone. This thing never ending. (F, 59)
  • Wake up anxious about contracting the virus (F, 52)
  • Scared im gonna get it (F, 58)
  • i had a dream i got it and had to isolate myself from everyone. (F, 21)
  • I dreamt that someone came closer than 6 feet to me without my permission and I freaked out at them. (F, 31)

Fear of family and friends catching it. This includes many expressions of the frustration and sadness of being separated from loved ones.

  • My best friend passed it to me, I survived, but he died from complications. (F, 18)
  • That a loved one had it and we had to see them through a window; they died and I was alone. (F, 56)
  • Scared, looking for family members who were lost. (F, 47)
  • Hearing that family has it and can't get treatment or that they didn't survive it. Like I can't even wave from outside a window to their room or anything. (F, 30)

Difficulty breathing. This one of the most frightening symptoms of the virus. Difficulties in breathing are commonly found in night terrors and sleep paralysis.

  • That I woke up and couldn't breathe. Felt like my lungs were filling up. (F, 36)
  • I was in a hospital bed, empty white room, I was coughing and stopped breathing. Knew that it wasn't real whenever I couldn't feel the bed I was on. Woke myself up. (M, 22)
  • I was dreaming I could not get enough air (M, 63)

Threats to work. The financial anxieties caused by the pandemic come through clearly in people’s dreams. This theme may grow as time goes on.

  • Losing my job. (M, 53)
  • Because of job loss I cannot afford to live. (M, 55)
  • I dreamed about coworkers and the virtual meetings we have had and their difficulty with caring for their kids in the meetings. I felt sad and overwhelmed. (F, 55)

Apocalypse. The end of the world is a recurrent theme in many religious traditions (e.g. the Book of Revelation in the Bible). Dreams are very sensitive to feelings that the world is fragmenting, falling apart, lapsing into chaos.

  • About the world crumbling. Things got tough. People suffered. Economy of some nation's crumble...and lots more. (M, 28)
  • The virus spread uncontrolled, bodies piled up. Company’s closed down. People becoming desperate and violence increasing. (F, 37)
  • Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, the Cradle of Life. (F, 55)
  • Animals start contracting the virus and then it goes back to humans in which it turns far worse and kills 90% of the world's population and becomes kind of an apocalypse. (M, 52)
  • I have dreams of the world ending, people going crazy and in all the turmoil im trying to get my older children home safely and they can't get home. (F, 50)
  • I was homeless, hungry and scared. Everyone in the world was sick, it was coronavirus mutated and turned everyone into zombies. They were trying to kill me by touching me. I had no way to survive even if I avoided being touched. Woke up just before I died of hunger sickness. Been having very weird dreams lately. (M, 18)

Normal life? It can feel hard to imagine that life will ever again feel calm and normal. Some dreams are peering through the darkness of the present to envision better possibilities in the future.

  • A normal day in the life, social distancing, no negative emotions. (F, 47)
  • I had a dream that we were attending a party for a friend's baby. Instead of all of us going in person, we all had computers set up with some kind of FaceTime app. We celebrated the birthday this way online instead of in person because of the outbreak. (F, 41)
  • I dreamed I opened a drawer and found a bunch of masks. I was very happy. (F, 61)

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