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How Dreams and Stories Handle Emotional Chaos

Have your dreams changed since the pandemic?

“When it comes to our suffering, we want something more than arbitrariness. We want it to mean something. This is evident in our stories about illness and disease, from contemporary science fiction all the way back to Homer’s Iliad. Even malign actors are more reassuring than blind happenstance. Angry gods are better than no gods at all,” argues Adam Roberts in a March 5, 2020 article published by The Guardian.

Titled, "Fever Dreams: Did Author Dean Koontz Really Predict Coronavirus?” Roberts focuses on the way authors tackle conceptions of pandemics and how their characters long to make sense of the chaos of illness in ways uncannily similar to ones we’re using right now as we attempt to cope with COVID-19.

As an uneasy sleeper who's rarely slept through the night, I've always remembered my dreams. I've kept a notebook next to my bed since I was 12 years old—without anybody suggesting I do this—in the primitive hope that it would help me make sense of what was happening to me while I was unconscious. Even as a kid, I'd always felt I went elsewhere when I dreamed, and I wanted a map of where I'd been.

Not that I wanted to return to most of the places I went when I was asleep: Nightmares were my most familiar landscapes. Like most people's bad dreams, mine included needing to run away, needing to hide, needing to escape, and needing to secure some sort of always-elusive protection.

My dreams have become more dense, more detailed, and more complex over the past several weeks as I have followed, carefully but calmly, the trajectory of the COVID-2019 pandemic across the globe.

Here’s one I’ve had about twice a week since the beginning of March: I’m in a fairly deserted place, windswept and empty as a scene out of The Last Picture Show but it’s a city, with skyscrapers and wide streets. I’m not sure where I am but I’m certain I’m late for where I’m meant to be. I need to find a toilet and none of the ones I can find are clean. Every restroom is filthy. Every bowl is broken, clogged, or overflowing with waste. I am simultaneously disgusted and frantic; I can’t go where I need to be until I, well, go. And I can’t bring myself to step into one of the stalls and won’t permit myself to just evacuate outside where somebody could see me.

Simple to decipher, right? No need to call Dr. Freud out of emergency for this one: It’s the dream that keeps every toilet-trained child asleep—if uncomfortable—and encourages continency.

But in the past, I’d have this dream twice a year, not twice a week. And I’d have it while I was traveling, staying somewhere unfamiliar, and not when I was a few steps from my own tidy and private bathroom.

This dream is now about contagion, not continency. This is a dream about the fear of contamination and a sense of distrust as well as disgust. It’s always been a bad dream but there’s a new sense of horror to it and it is connected more dramatically with the events in the news than memories from my unconscious.

Or maybe the events in the news are simply banging on the privy door of my unconscious and letting the worst of it out.

When I asked my friends, on Facebook and in email conversations, whether they experienced a similar shift in their dreams, more than 350 responded. This is not, of course, a scientific or random sampling.

These are representative replies, however, from the 362 people who read or heard the following question, posed on March 29th and March 30th of 2020: "What have your dreams been like recently? Vivid? Unusual? COVID-19 dreams?"

“I had a dream that I was pushing my grandchild in a stroller, but I don’t have a grandchild in real life," wrote Lisa Munley from Michigan. “We were walking down the street enjoying the sunshine but then the baby started to cry. I looked into the stroller: One of the baby’s eyes was like a cloudy milky blue-white, like a marble, and the other was looking sideways and was oozing pus. I screamed. I knew the reason the baby’s eyes were messed up was because I went outside during the coronavirus pandemic.”

A local pal from Hartford dreams of “lice infestations,” echoing the idea of contagion and contamination. “Being trapped in unexpected places,” is what Doretta Andonucci’s dreams have been about. “I dream that I must race home to meet the delivery person... who was bringing my layoff notice.”

In Rhode Island, Karen DesRoches Bartolomeo “Dreamt of my own funeral. No one came. That's scarier than dying.” I learn from a remarkable friend who works with the bereaved, a former nurse who lives out west, that Karen’s dream is close to reality; the funeral industry is, as so many industries are, learning how to cope with changes involving groups and gatherings—even if those gathering are doing so out of grief and mourning.

Alexandra Rosas, a Moth Grand-Slam champion who is also from Rhode Island, dreams of “All dirt on things. Dirt in the water. Dirt on the floor. Dirt on the beds. I can't keep up with it.”

Peter Temes from Illinois writes, simply, that he dreams of a “College exam for class I never attended. (I'm 51.) Going on stage for a play I know nothing about. All anxiety.”

All anxiety: That is the pattern woven through the dreams I’ve been hearing about. Yet since one of the reasons we dream is to make sense of what happens to us during the day. Even the worst dreams we have are still plot-driven, still make some sort of emotional sense, and still clean some of the psychological litter box. They allow us to function better in our waking lives because they clear out emotional, spiritual, and intellectual detritus.

In a world where, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we feel we can’t keep clean, can’t keep up, can’t find safety, and can’t discover who the “enemy” really is, even nightmares can offer relief—as long as we have them while we’re sleeping.

A May 2019 piece by Stephen Dowling for the BBC's "Future" cites Francesca Siclari, a sleep researcher at Lausanne University Hospital. “It’s probably a good thing that the dream life and the waking life are completely different,” Siclari argues, because "If you remembered every detail like you can do in waking life, you would start to confuse things with what’s actually happening in your real life.”

Here’s to discovering what we can learn from our dreams, learning what we can from one another, and to understanding that even at our most separate moment—when we are asleep and apart from every other creature—we still share a great deal and create astonishingly similar stories.

Isn’t it interesting that our minds, like our bodies, often heal along the same lines?

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