The Pandemic, the Protests, and Dreams

Is the coronavirus invading your dreams?

Posted Jun 30, 2020

“I remember speaking to my nephew on the phone, a nurse working in a major urban hospital, and being concerned that he was talking about not having enough personal protective equipment and the stress of working long hours overnight. A sense of anxiety and worry filled me. I wanted to help but I had no access to the things he needed most. I became increasingly concerned but felt paralyzed and unable to do anything meaningful.

“Then the alarm went off and I woke with an uncomfortable feeling of tension and concern. It had not been a real conversation and it was not a nightmare in the usual sense. I remembered that I had seen a picture earlier in the day that he had posted of himself with a colleague, both in masks, on the job at the hospital. So it was not an actual phone conversation but had been suggested by what I had seen earlier in the day before retiring for the night. Clearly my concerns had manifested themselves in a troubled dream.”

This was a dream that a colleague told me about fairly early on during the pandemic. It was a time of great concern about what was happening and about the danger that frontline medical providers were in, given the limited resources and increasing caseloads in some of our major urban hospitals. The regions of the country being most affected have shifted but the stress continues today.

Still another friend began reporting terrifying dreams of driving through dense smoke and fire. Over time, these developed into depressing dreams of apocalyptic destruction with ruined cities and scorched forests. This person had lived on the West Coast at the time of our recent major wildfires and had been watching news reports about the fires in Australia earlier this year. It is hard to even remember back to the beginning of the year when so much environmental destruction was occurring there. Given all that has happened since, it almost seems to be a distant memory. This friend is an active environmentalist and was deeply pained by what was happening to the wildlife down under.

Over the past few weeks, while conducting online sessions, I have been hearing more reports of these kinds of dreams from patients. People clearly are incorporating elements of actual news reports into their dreams where they take on great personal significance. Two other dream reports illustrate this.

An older woman who had lived in New Haven as a young person during the late 1960s and early 1970s noted that the recent protests against police brutality, especially those in which additional violence occurred, had brought back memories of the protests and unrest of that earlier time. In her dreams, she was caught in the middle of a riot and feared for her life. Awakening from this kind of dream was a relief but left her with a sense of tension and unease that persisted for much of the following day.

Another dream report came from a formerly apolitical person who has become more sensitized to political issues. His dream was seemingly endless and in it, he knew that he had to cast an important vote, but everywhere he went to vote, the voting areas were closed or had some kind of impossible maze or barrier around them. He, too, awakened with a sense of unease and dread. He said this dream added to his feeling of uncertainty about our country’s ability to remain a functioning democracy. Interestingly, this dream had occurred in the aftermath of the voting problems during the Georgia primary in June. So many people have noticed the occurrence of COVID-19 stress-related dreams that no one is surprised that these dreams are even being referenced in political commentary.

What each of these dream reports shows is that current events, especially emotionally relevant ones, get incorporated into our dream world. Freud introduced the idea of the “day residue” that becomes a part of dreams and this certainly seems to be something we see happening now. Why this happens is because REM sleep and dreaming are important in the processing of important and emotionally significant life experiences and are involved in emotional memory (Scarpelli, Bartolacci, D'Atri, Gorgoni, & De Gennaro, 2019). With the constant bombardment of news about the pandemic and other stressful events occurring daily in the world, it is understandable that many people would find themes related to them showing up in their dreams. Dreams help process emotional material and there has been a lot to process recently.

The occurrence of dreams related to the pandemic was noted early on by researchers such as Deirdre Barrett at Harvard University. She has been looking at pandemic related dreams and has presented some early findings. You can contribute to her survey at this link

Her findings indicate that many of the dreams people have are concerning the possibility of getting COVID-19. These dreams may focus on being short of breath, having a fever, or having other possible symptoms of the disease. Other dreams focus on what may be metaphors for the disease such as frightening bugs that attack the sleeper or tornados or other natural disasters that threaten the dreaming person. Still other dream reports have focused on issues related to coping with the pandemic, such as being out in public and realizing that the dreamer is not wearing a mask. Dreams have also been reported that seem related to sheltering in place, such as being imprisoned or lost and alone. She found that frontline health care workers, such as emergency room physicians and nurses, have been reporting full-out nightmares like those reported by people with PTSD.  

Are you having dreams or nightmares about current events? Some suggestions to assist in coping with them emerge from the work that has been done on dealing with nightmares in patients with PTSD or those that have nightmare disorder. First, avoid exposure to news programs and articles in the hours before bedtime. Information received prior to bedtime probably has an outsized impact on sleep and dream content. Anyone who was settling down to go to bed and got into an argument with a bed partner knows this well. Second, keep a relaxing routine in the hour or so before bedtime. Be nice to yourself and set the conditions for a good night of sleep. Third, be aware of your dreams. Recall can be facilitated by keeping a dream journal. This allows you to identify the themes and emotional states that are cropping up in your dreams so they can be addressed during the day when you can do something about them. Finally, just prior to bedtime, be sure to focus on the positive things in your life, both great and small, so that you can set a healthy intention for sleep and dreams. Sleep well. 

References

Scarpelli, S., Bartolacci, C., D'Atri, A., Gorgoni, M., & De Gennaro, L. (2019). The Functional Role of Dreaming in Emotional Processes. Frontiers in psychology10, 459. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00459