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7 Powerful Themes from Pandemic Dream Research

Collective dream analysis illuminates the mind in troubling times.

Key points

  • Dreams serve many functions, and reflect collective experience, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • We can learn from dreams about underlying feelings and thoughts, and use dreams to learn about ourselves.
  • Key narratives define pandemic-related dreams and add to our collective experience.

Since time immemorial, when important events are happening, when we are living in times of change, our dreams come alive, blending over into waking life and capturing our attention. The COVID-19 pandemic, grueling in its persistence and tragic in its destruction, is present in our sleeping and waking lives.

Italy was one of the first and hardest-hit countries. At that time, researchers from Sapienza University of Rome designed a study (2021) exploring the dreams of people during COVID in order to better understand how collective trauma plays out in the unconscious mind, as reflected during sleep.

Dreaming and sleep have been shown to serve important roles in memory and learning, part of our nocturnal housekeeping to clear out toxins, and also reflective of repetitive brain activity related to digesting experiences, cognition, emotion processing, and preparing for the future. Freud famously referred to dreams as the "royal road to the unconscious," although dreams are thought to serve many functions1.

Pandemic Dreams

Researchers surveyed 598 people aged 18-70 with an average age of 30, starting in late April of 2020, during one of the worst months of the pandemic in Italy. In addition to measures of dream content and frequency and quality of dreams, participants were asked about how COVID-19 impacted behaviors like leaving home, fears of getting sick, and sickness among themselves and loved ones. The survey included measures of anxiety, depression, and worry. Over 1000 dream narratives were collected, and the stories within those dreams were distilled using a process called “thematic analysis."

They found that about a quarter of respondents reported no COVID dreams, and about a quarter noted that most of their dreams were about COVID, with the rest in the middle (sometimes dreaming about the pandemic). Women were more likely to have COVID-related dreams, as were younger people. People currently in therapy were more likely to report such dreams, while those with past therapy were not.

For women, fear of contagion and anxiety were correlated with more frequent dreams, and for men only pre-pandemic vividness of dreams predicted COVID-related dreaming. Regardless of gender, baseline dream vividness was associated with increased COVID dreams.

Dream emotions frequencies were fear/fright/terror and anxiety/anguish/worry (about 25 percent), serenity/tranquility/joy (19 percent), displacement/helplessness (17.4 percent), Anger (8.4 percent) and sadness/loss/grief (5 percent).

7 COVID Dream Themes

Thematic analysis revealed seven recurring, dominant themes among people surveyed.2 Readers are advised that many of the themes and descriptions may be triggering.

  1. Relationships: People reported commonly dreaming about friendships, family members, and romantic partners. While many dreams reflected ordinary, even pleasant events (possibly expressing wishes for happier times and reunions, even if there were themes of underlying danger, as in a family ice skating), dreams were often disturbing, depicting scenes of violence and death, betrayal, loneliness, and separation.
  2. Human environment: Dreams often depicted familiar places, such as homes. Themes of transportation were common — for example, being a child driving in a car and feeling out of control, veering off the road. Dreams were often set in iconic locations ("heterotopias") such as airports, with themes of powerlessness and being lost. Medical and mental health settings were common. Post-apocalyptic or war scenes were reported frequently.
  3. Natural environment: Researchers identified themes connected with the four elements of water, fire, earth, and air. Water dreams were most common, including themes of natural disaster like flight from large waves to a hospital with COVID testing. Fire dreams reflected post-apocalyptic scenarios, with bodies. While earth dreams sometimes were frightening, including earthquake dreams, they often were peaceful and soothing, involving safe reunion with loved ones and communion. Air dreams most commonly involved storms and related disasters.
  4. Trials and challenges: People dreamed about difficulties faced and struggles to resolve problems and overcome challenges, including escaping from shady police officers and aggressive soldiers, with serious consequences if caught. Travel dreams included presenting documents at checkpoints, missing tickets, or fears of discovery of false identity. Dreamers reported having to solve puzzles or answer riddles.
  5. COVID-19: Many dreamers reported actual COVID-19 dreams, involving fears of contagion, often due to deliberate or incompetent behavior from others spreading the virus by not following precautions or by purposely coughing or spitting. Dreams also involved hiding at home in isolation, trapped, feeling like prisoners, or even being persecuted by outsiders. Pandemic-related dreams included being in crowds, with dreamers realizing that they had forgotten to wear a mask and being unable to get to safety. Some dreamers reported of themselves and/or loved ones being sick and dying.
  6. Violence: A number of dreams had to do with danger from non-COVID sources. For instance, dreaming of watching violent acts including physical and sexual aggression. Dreams were about murderers breaking in, mass murders, and war and torture settings. Soldiers in dreams were often depicted in white suits reminiscent of personal protective equipment, i.e. isolation suits.
  7. Bodily experiences: Dreams often involved the body, depicting sickness and also onslaught by invasive or dangerous creatures like spiders biting with ensuing rash, or fears of contamination by objects in the environment, or unusual bodily sensations. Body experiences included mouth and tooth dreams, e.g., teeth shaking and falling out, or having odd sensations connected to the inside of one’s body. Some dreams showed animals being affected; one dreamer described their dog becoming a reddish mass after going into a "strange house."

Waking Up

The themes in this study are informative about the acute, impact phase of the pandemic, notable especially for drawing upon experiences of people in one of the first and most tragically impacted countries, people the world watched with rapt attention, sensing an approaching wave.

We are not out of the woods with COVID-19. In many areas, life is beginning to approach a “new normal” with echoes of pre-pandemic times. COVID-19 has become a chronic disaster with waxing and waning cycles, still unresolved. As such, we do not yet have a sense of transition or safety, though it appears to be approaching.

These dreams are familiar, reverberating not only with the collective pandemic experience, but also recycling elements of past horrors, world wars, genocides, and traumas personal and collective. We have difficulty working through collective traumas, and past horrors continue to haunt collective dreams during COVID.

Sadness, loss, and grief were the least common dream emotions reported. While this may reflect how early this survey was during the pandemic, it may also speak to how challenging mourning and acceptance are. Working with grief and loss, however useful, may evoke painful emotions we defer, even when we know how problematic fear, worry, and anger often are.

Dreams speak of better times and wishes for the future, as well as fears, rage, and grief. While dreams are powerfully therapeutic behind closed doors, sharing of dreams helps us make sense of the human experience to both more effectively grieve and prepare for future events.

References

1. In addition to the role of sleep and dreams in learning and memory, study authors note that psychological theories suggest dreams may serve important functions for individuals and society as a whole. Dreams are hypothesized in the traditional psychoanalytic literature to express an effort to master or control what happens in our lives, especially challenging areas — a way of “working through” problems in our sleep. The “continuity theory” of dreaming suggests that dreams serve a way to bridge sleeping and waking life.

Dreams may also serve to process traumatic memories, allowing them to be integrated into our personalities and personal narratives, though in PTSD repetitive dreams remain split off, not integrated, leading to distress and feelings of fear and helplessness, and undermining sleep quality, even causing people to avoid sleep out of fear. Dreams serve many possible functions, outlined below.

One theory, the “threat simulation theory” is consistent with the idea that dreams are adaptive, a safe way to encounter and practice for waking life without actually being in danger. This is in keeping with observations that learning is consolidated by sleep — in general, the more we can learn by imagining the less risk there is from making mistakes in waking life.

Dreams may serve a compensatory function, reducing “disharmony” between individual strivings and the constraints of society. Dreams may also help us prepare for waking life, allowing us to digest experiences in advance so we can understand them better on a conscious level, serving an important role in thinking through things — actively working with dream material in a conscious state presumably enhances the benefit of processing dream experience.

Along these lines, for those in psychotherapy, dreams may be seen as a form of communication between patient and therapist, and working with dreams a way to access material otherwise inaccessible to consciousness. Dream expert Mark Blechner coined the term "oneirophobia" in his seminal text The Dream Frontier to describe the ordinary, everyday fear people have to their own dreams which we may decide to address through dreamwork including recording or writing down dreams upon waking, discussing dreams with close others, and using dreams in therapy. Oneirophobia is not to be confused with the fear of nightmares associated with PTSD, driving anticipatory anxiety and insomnia from sleep avoidance.

2. While rare and not recurring themes, some dreams were positive, with happy or pleasurable emotions or events. These included sex dreams and pregnancy dreams. Sex dreams were pleasurable, but also could involve apprehensive undercurrents including liaisons with ex-parters and/or people outside of committed relationships (“infidelity”). Likewise, maternity dreams while often upbeat with themes of “renewal” could be disturbing.

Giovanardi, G., Fiorini Bincoletto, A., Baiocco, R., Ferrari, M., Gentile, D., Siri, M., Tanzilli, A., & Lingiardi, V. (2021,
September 27). Lockdown Dreams: Dream Content and Emotions During the COVID-19 Pandemic in an Italian Sample.
Psychoanalytic Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pap0000385

Dreams and Other Matters: The Dream Frontier, Mark J. Blechner. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press, 2001

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