No one is experiencing the pandemic in exactly the same way, but we share many common fears and anxieties — even when we’re asleep. As the pandemic goes on, dream experts say the evolution of COVID-19 tells us a lot about our waking life, too.
In my own case, I have a recurring dream where I’m in a supermarket, wearing a mask – but no one else is. Everyone is breathing on me, and I can’t get away.
Many dreamers report a version of this theme.
“Yeah, I had one where I was being chased by a ton of maskless people and they were like monsters, but without masks,” said Renee Manley of Springfield, Massachusetts.
“For a long time, the dream was some variation on: I'm in a crowded place, there’s a lot of people around,” said Jenny Hansell of Haydenville. “They’re all pushing and shoving, and nobody's wearing masks.”
“Those [mask dreams] I’ve seen all along,” said Deirdre Barrett, a Harvard University psychologist who studies dreams.
What’s evolved over the course of the pandemic, Barrett said, is that dreamers themselves used to be the only ones with a mask, and now they’re more likely to be the ones who forgot their mask.
“[They feel] embarrassment or shame or worry about what people are going to think of this,” she said. “They sort of merged in with the common dream theme of being naked in public.”
Since the pandemic started, Barrett has collected about 15,000 dreams from around the world. She published her early results in a book called "Pandemic Dreams."
When the virus first hit, Barrett said, a lot of people were dreaming about insect attacks, a theme she didn't see when studying other collective traumas like 9/11.
“All the other metaphors like tsunamis coming at you and mass shooters in the streets were similar to what stands in for any crisis,” she said. “But the bug attacks and the invisible monsters ... those seem to be a very unique metaphor for COVID, these tiny particles that we can't see but they can kill us.”
“COVID has taken so much from us. It's also given us a collective experience,” said Tzivia Gover, of Northampton, a dreamwork professional who helps people interpret their dreams.
Gover’s business picked up dramatically early in the pandemic — mostly, she thinks, because more people were working from home and sleeping longer.
“They were being able to wake up with their natural rhythms,” she said, “so they were getting to enjoy the long REM dream cycle in the mornings where the most vivid and memorable dreams take place.”
Manley, a disabled vet, has noticed her dreams become more vivid since she got COVID a year ago. At first, the dreams revolved around her symptoms.
“I would be jolted awake in the middle of the night, almost like a fight or flight response,” said Manley, “like I would think that I couldn't breathe, but I could.”
Manley said she’s still suffering from COVID symptoms, but her dreams are less physical now, and often involve masks.
Gover believes mask dreams are not just about fear of catching the virus but also a sign that society is getting used to a new life prop, like a new technology. Her clients are also reporting a lot of Zoom dreams.
“It used to be that classic dream: I'm trying to dial the phone and I can't get through,” Gover said. “Now people are having dreams that they're on a Zoom call and there are technical mishaps.”
Many people report their dreams changing with the stages of the pandemic. Recently, Barrett has noticed a lot of back-to-work anxiety dreams.
“It could be sort of literal, that their colleagues looked pale and sick and were coughing,” Barrett said. “Or it could be something just weird and metaphoric. In one dream, the office had put down this filthy wet carpet and instigated a rule where people had to take off their shoes and socks at the door. So all day, you were going to walk across this disgusting carpet. That was stand in for COVID.”
Hansell, a nonprofit director and artist, has asthma, and early on, she was terrified of breathing problems.
“Knowing that's how COVID manifested, I think my anxiety dreams kicked in right away every time I had the tiniest cough,” she said.
But now Hansell feels like the end of the pandemic is in sight, and apparently so does her subconscious.
“I was sitting in a chair and there was a big glass in front of me that looked like a big, messy glass of chocolate syrup. And that was the vaccine. And they were about to put it into my arm. And it seemed weird, but I knew it was fine and I didn't care,” Hansell said. “I just think I was crying hysterically in the dream because I was finally getting the vaccine.”
Hansell is also dreaming about emotional reunions with family and friends. Barrett said that's been constant throughout the pandemic. What's changed is how people feel in the morning. Last year, when real life seemed especially dystopian, dreamers would be really sad when they woke up from a social gathering.
“[Now] the person is much likelier to report that the dream has picked up their mood,” Barrett said, “because they feel like they've been shown a preview of something they're going to be getting back to pretty soon.”
Dreams can also shed light on social trends and inequities, Barrett said. In her dream research, she found significant gender differences. Women have more anxiety dreams about homeschooling than men. Women also report having twice as many sad or angry dreams than before COVID.
“And men’s were just the same [as before], indistinguishable from pre-pandemic times. They did not have sadder or angrier dreams,” she said.
That suggests to Barrett that women, who tend to hold more front-line jobs and home duties, are bearing the brunt of the pandemic.
But whatever the dreams really mean, that may be less important than the act of sharing them. In normal times, listening to another person's dream can feel tedious. But during the pandemic, Barrett said, it offers real comfort and connection.
“It seems like these kind of metaphoric scenarios and vivid images that our dreams come up with, they just cut to the kind of deepest emotional part of what we're feeling,” she said.
In other words, to learn you're not the only one dreaming of bugs crawling all over your skin — well, that's a true bond.