Having Nightmares About Going Maskless or Back to Work? You're Not Alone

We can't escape COVID-19, even in our sleep. Psychologist Deirdre Barrett is tracking our dreams about this new, ever-changing reality.

By Hope ReeseAug 20, 2021 12:00 PM
Illustrations by Jay Smith


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This article appeared in the September/October 2021 issue of Discover magazine as "Sweet Pandemic Dreams." Become a subscriber for unlimited access to our archive.

You find yourself at a crowded party. People are dancing and drinking and sweating and — wait — why isn’t anyone wearing a mask? You wake up, anxious and confused, and realize it was all a dream: Fears from daily pandemic life just crept into your mind when you were asleep.

Early last year as the COVID-19 pandemic began to unfold, Deirdre Barrett, a dream researcher and psychologist at Harvard University, started looking into how this chaotic — and largely collective — experience was affecting our dreams. In March 2020, Barrett created an online survey asking participants from around the globe to describe the dreams they had about the pandemic. By the following March, she had collected and analyzed more than 15,000 dreams from more than 5,000 individuals.

Pandemic dreams have been more vivid and bizarre than those observed during normal times, she’s found. And with disruptions in work schedules and disappearance of commuting for many, dream recall increased for a period at the beginning of the pandemic — typically, an alarm interruption doesn’t allow us the same chance to remember our dreams as when we awaken naturally.

As Barrett writes in her June 2020 book Pandemic Dreams, many of us were having dreams with similar motifs, both realistic and metaphorical, related to the spread of the virus — such as ones about being maskless in the grocery store or getting attacked by giant monster bugs, for instance. But those motifs morphed in the months following publication. Barrett continued to analyze dreams during the summer and fall of 2020; those highlighted many people’s stress over returning to work or school. And after vaccines were approved and started to become available earlier this year, she saw in many dreams signs of hope that the world would return to a sense of normalcy.

Discover caught up with Barrett to learn about trends in our collective dreamscape during COVID-19 and her analysis of the online survey, which she plans to continue until the pandemic is, in her words, “sort of mostly over.”

Q: Your book was published June 2020, but you continued to collect and analyze pandemic dreams afterward. What trends have you noticed since then?

DB: There were still dreams about getting the virus or being in lockdown. Some of them were very literal. People would look pale and be coughing and it looked like their coworkers would be infected with COVID.

Others were much more metaphorical. Someone had a new rule at work and had to take off shoes and socks at the office, and there was this disgusting wet carpet that they had to walk over, all day long. One dreamer had been told in real life that her office was going to move some desks in a big open area further apart from each other and put plexiglass barriers between them. In her dream, she got to work and the workers had misunderstood — they’d moved all the desks closer together and put up the plexiglass encircling them. There were just lots of these “I’m back at work and it isn’t safe” dreams.

I saw analogous back-to-school dreams in August. Parents were dropping their kids off at school and the other kids didn’t have masks on or were coughing. Or the school seemed to have aged a century and had no upkeep, as was the case with one dreamer — she was afraid that the roof was going to cave in on the children if they went inside.

For every change in conditions, I saw dreams in response. In the fall of 2020, I saw older people having a variance on the mask dreams that I see a lot of. In most dreams, it’s almost always strangers that don’t have their masks on; otherwise, the dreamer has forgotten to put one on. But elderly people were having lots of dreams where they were with their family, and their family members didn’t have masks on or were getting too close.

Instead of experiencing sheer terror, these elderly dreamers were much more ambivalent. You could feel that they wanted to be with their family members — yet they were also scared about the lack of masks.

Q: When vaccine distribution began, did you get reports of anyone having dreams related to it?

DB: Since the first approvals were announced, there have been more positive, “the-pandemic-is-over,” kind of wish-fulfillment dreams. When those occurred early on, the dreamer would tend to wake up and report that immediately they felt this wave of sadness hitting them — they’d had this wonderful dream about being with family that live across the country who they can’t usually see. Or about being back in their favorite nightclub dancing or at a party, and they’d wake up and they think: “I won’t be able to do this for ages. This is showing me what I can’t do these days.”

But around when the vaccines got approved, there was a steady change and the dreamers would sort of wake up and think, “This is a preview of what we’re going to be doing soon.”

How to Solve Problems in Your Sleep

What we dream about may seem completely out of our control. But research shows this isn’t entirely true; Barrett explains that we can trigger specific dreams and solve problems by using a method called dream incubation.

While the practice dates back to ancient times, more recent research has attempted to quantify how successful dream incubation can be. In 1993, Barrett conducted a study based on some ancient traditions to measure how well they worked. Subjects reflected on a problem — personal, academic or objective — for 15 minutes before bedtime. After a week of mulling over their problem each night, half of the subjects dreamed about their chosen topic, and 70 percent reported dreaming up a solution to their problem.

(Credit: Olesya Kuznetsova/Shutterstock)

Since Barrett’s study participants were “unusually interested in dreams,” she hesitated to apply these results to a broad population in the report. However, as they were “highly comparable to clients of therapists,” in that many study participants chose personal problems to solve, she wrote that mental health professionals may have success in helping their patients resolve dilemmas through dream incubation. More recent research has explored how training yourself to lucid dream can help solve problems as well.

To tackle real-world problems, it might help to try dream incubation for a week. Success is more likely if your problem is relatively simple and concrete — so it’s probably best to save your biggest conundrums for waking hours. — H.R.

Q: You have looked at variables such as age, geography and gender in your dream analyses. How do these characteristics influence our dreams, and which are the most significant?

DB: What really jumped out was that, when I did the analysis comparing men and women, fear among both groups was elevated compared to the pre-pandemic dreams. Dreams about illness were way up, dreams about death were way up — like four-fold for death, two-fold for fear. Women’s sadness and anger was way up. It was double, but it wasn't quite as high as their fear. For men, sadness and anger weren’t elevated over previous non-pandemic times.

I think that’s related to how the indirect effects of the pandemic hit women harder. If family members are getting ill, women do more of the in-home nursing. In health care settings, they’re skewed toward the lower end of the earning and educational levels. They were less likely to get good PPE at first, when it was in short supply. More women have been laid off from their jobs because they’re overrepresented in jobs that are part-time, non-contract and can just lay somebody off. Men are more likely to be in jobs that have good contracts where they would need three to six months’ notice, or they would get three to six months of severance pay if they were laid off.

Even though men are just as scared about getting sick and just as scared of their loved ones being affected in that way, women are angry and sad over all these other social changes that are hitting them harder.

Q: You’ve looked at dreams post-9/11 and from Kuwaitis immediately after Iraqi occupation ended in 1991. How do dreams from the pandemic compare with these?

DB: 9/11 was a one-time event, and a lot of the dreams reflected fears that it was going to happen again, or it would happen in that dreamer’s hometown. But for some of the war populations, data was collected on post-trauma populations during the wars, as opposed to well after — and those dreams are more equivalent to the ones people are having during the pandemic.

But in both scenarios, there are more similarities than differences. After 9/11, a lot of people dreamed fairly literally about parts of the real events — planes crashing into buildings, bad men with knives, buildings falling down — only they might set them in their own town. You saw the fear that it was going to happen, and closer to home in the future. But there were also lots of metaphors: wildfires, earthquakes. I see all the same metaphors for this, although some of the categories are distinctive to this. Bug attacks are not something that I ever saw really any of in the other crisis dreams collections. And the bug attack dreams were really common during COVID, more so at the very start.

In April 2020, there were more and more dreams about the secondary effects, such as lacking food or access to education. That also happens in a lot of war populations. Especially in civilian populations in war-torn areas — the economic impact or the kids can’t go to school or you’re nursing someone who’s injured.

Q: Research shows that people who are more emotionally sensitive tend to have more intense dreams. What other personality traits seem to affect the pandemic dreams?

DB: The correlation with personality traits is much smaller than the correlation with hours of sleep at night and how well you remember your dreams — more sleep yields the strongest dream recall. But there are some personality things that correlate. Being mildly depressed correlates with more dream recall. Being introspective, more interested in emotions, more introverted. And people who are more extroverted, practical and world-focused tend to have less dream recall. Artists, on average, have more dream recall. That’s well-established for dreams, in general.

I’ve also seen another effect: People especially subject to having nightmares when traumas happen are those who have a past history, especially in childhood, of traumas. After 9/11, I saw more people dreaming of things like hijackers on a plane with knives. But in some cases, those scary people actually represented someone else who had caused trauma in the past. One dreamer realized that one of the hijackers was the rapist that had assaulted them when they were 12 years old.

If you’ve been raped or you were the victim of some other violent crime, that increases your odds of having bad dreams about those scenarios. And you may have a dream that merges multiple traumas. But COVID-19 really seemed to reactivate dreams about trauma even more for people who’d had very serious childhood illnesses — they had been hospitalized either with a series of very painful operations or with an illness that made things like breathing very difficult. Those people seem the most reactivated by this.

Q: What’s a bizarre COVID-related dream you’ve had?

DB: In my dream, I invented a phone app by which people could report their COVID dreams. It was analogous to the online survey, but a phone app. I had my phone in front of me, going through these reported dreams. The app worked a bit like virtual reality and augmented reality programming. The phone would project the most vivid image from the dream as a hologram. Sometimes it was a scary monster, a bleak landscape or a hospital scene. Whatever was the most vivid moment in the dream would project out in more exaggerated depth than real 3D. I viewed a bunch of images. And then I realized I could comfort the dreamer by hugging the image.

I saw a monster that was like a humanoid or blurry ghostly shape, but it had a head that was a COVID-19 particle. The head was on a vaguely humanoid, Casper-the-Friendly-Ghost body — but it was bright yellow for some reason, and looked shiny. I reached out and hugged this creepy-looking monster. But in my mind, I wasn’t hugging the monster; I was hugging the dreamer and comforting them somehow.

So, I knew I’d invented this app where people could record and communicate their dreams, but at the end of it, it also helped me comfort the dreamers.

Barrett’s June 2020 book reported that real-life COVID-19 fears can shape our dreams. Since then, vaccine-fueled optimism seems to have eased pandemic nightmares.

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