Dreaming in the Time of the Virus

Understanding COVID-19 dreams.

Posted May 20, 2020

Many quarantined individuals are having mild to severe symptoms of anxiety during this time of quarantine. This is a perfectly normal and even expected kind of anxiety.

One of the most common symptoms of anxiety is insomnia—the failure to be able to fall asleep or to stay asleep. These issues are being addressed on a daily basis by psychotherapists and psychologists. Instead I want to focus this post on a related, but different, issue that is coming up frequently for those who are actually able to sleep, and that is the changes in dream patterns during this period of isolation. I will describe some of the most interesting experiences being reported to me and my colleagues.

Some people are being plagued with nightmares. Anxiety-induced dreams may often be experienced as nightmares. Something is chasing you and you are trying to escape. You are lost and cannot find your way home. You are trying to call for help, but your telephone is lost or not working. You show up for work with no clothes on. These dreams are extremely common and usually related to anxiety, although they may derive from more complex sources.

Sleep patterns are altered so that you may be remembering more details of your dreams than previously. Many of us have been severely sleep-deprived as a result of juggling complicated and overwhelming schedules, so that this period of seclusion may be an opportunity to catch up on sleep. Catching up on sleep includes catching up on REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which is the usual dream state. Thus, more sleep, more dreaming. Less urgency to get going in the morning, more remembering.

Others are reporting more elaborate and intense dreams in the time of the quarantine.  There is significantly less stimulation in the experiences of the days of most of us than there is when we can roam freely. The brain may be making up for this lack of daytime stimulation with more intense nocturnal activity. One very interesting example that has been told to me is having almost an alternative dream life that continues and unfolds just like a daytime life-only it is a totally different existence. These include childhood or other earlier memories and can even involve weaving an elaborate story of the path not taken in earlier years. You may be married to someone whom you did not choose or did not choose you. You may choose a different career path or place to live. Interestingly, the entire course of your alternative life can slowly reveal itself if you return to the scene each night, which many are reporting. These can be but are not necessarily lucid dreams, which occur when you are aware that you are dreaming in the dream itself.

These are interesting quarantine variations on dream patterns and intensity. None are problematic unless the experience is upsetting to the individual for an extended time, in which case professional help may be sought.