Harvard researcher says dreams indicative of virus fears

By | May 14, 2020

GAZETTE: Anything else that you’ve noticed specifically related to coronavirus?

BARRETT: Early on, I saw an awful lot of dreams that seemed to be sort of practicing mask wearing or social distancing. In about half of them, the dreamer would be out in public and realize they didn’t have their mask and panic or realize they had gotten too close to someone. In the other half, they would be doing what they were supposed to, and other people would not have their masks on or be crowding in the dream or be coughing on the dreamer. And they seemed like just these anxiety dreams. As you’re learning a new skill, you often kind of dream about what you’re trying to learn. There’s a little less emphasis on the, “I’m getting the virus,” either metaphorically or for real, in dreams. What I’m beginning to see — these have been there from the start but they’re on the increase — are dreams about the aspects of the lockdown or other things that are an outgrowth of the pandemic. The most common is definitely the shelter-at-home stuff. People who are sheltering at home alone will dream that they’ve been locked up in prison, or one woman was sent to Mars by herself to establish the first one-person Mars colony. There was a woman who in reality was homeschooling her child, but she dreamed that that someone had decided that her child’s entire class had to come and live with her. So you see dreams exaggerating isolation for some people or exaggerating crowding or a reduction in privacy rights for others. And those are on the increase, as are dreams about finding out all your money’s gone, or trying to get a job and not being able to.

GAZETTE: Are you able to distinguish any differences in the dreams of those who are on the front lines? Or maybe even people who’ve had a diagnosis of COVID-19?

BARRETT: I have more than 600 health care workers now. It’s still a small part of the total sample, but I really see strong trends. Of the people who are working in the ICU or the emergency rooms or even just general medical units, in most cases they’re having full-on nightmares. And they look like trauma nightmares, meaning they’re not as dreamlike and bizarre and metaphorical as most of the other dreams. They tend to involve taking care of someone who’s dying of COVID-19, and they’re trying to do something like put a patient on a respirator, or get the tube reattached that’s come off a respirator, or the respirator machines are not working. So they feel like it’s their responsibility to save this person’s life, and yet they don’t actually have much control over it, and the person is dying anyway. That’s their nightmare. It’s the worst moment from their daytime experiences.

GAZETTE: Can you say more about the difference between anxiety dreams, nightmares, and trauma dreams?

BARRETT: All anxiety dreams are not nightmares. We usually reserve the word nightmare for dreams where somebody just feels overwhelmed with terror, as opposed to when anxiety dominates the dream. But traumatic nightmares are really a thing unto themselves. They don’t look as dreamlike as dreams. The vast majority of ordinary dreams and garden-variety nightmares are happening during rapid-eye-movement, or REM, sleep. That’s not true of traumatic nightmares when they’ve been studied in the sleep lab. They’re happening across all stages of sleep, which is really unusual. We think that they may actually be similar to what is happening with daytime flashbacks, that there are just these intrusive trauma memories that are intruding on your consciousness during any state of consciousness, from waking to dreaming sleep to what is usually nondreaming sleep.

GAZETTE: Is there anything we can do to try to control what we dream about?

BARRETT: The best way to do that is to think of what you would like to dream about. You could pick out a person you’d like to see in your dream tonight, or a favorite place. Some people enjoy flying dreams, or some people have just had an all-time lifetime favorite dream. So pick what you’d like to dream about. And if it’s a general one, like a person or place, just visualize that person or place. Or you can put some photograph of what you’re trying to dream about on your nightstand so you look at it as the last thing before you go to sleep. If you have a particular favorite dream you’re focusing on, you might try to replay that in detail before falling asleep. And that would make you likelier to have a similar dream. And that both makes it likelier that you’ll dream about that content, and it also makes it less likely you’ll have anxiety dreams.

Interview was edited for content and length.

Health & Medicine – Harvard Gazette