Day 6

Quarantine dreaming: People's dreams during pandemic more vivid and intense, says psychologist

As our stress, anxiety and new worries build up over weeks of physical distancing and self-isolation, Harvard Medical School psychologist Deirdre Barrett has heard from many people who describe their dreams as becoming more intense, more detailed — and somehow, easier to remember.

Psychologist is collecting stories of thousands of people's COVID-era dreams — and making art with them

Deirdre Barrett says many people are experiencing vivid dreams about their anxiety over the COVID-19 pandemic. She interprets some of those dreams (as well as her own) in art. (Submitted by Deirdre Barrett)

Originally published May 1, 2020.

Deirdre Barrett has heard from thousands of people who say their pandemic-era dreams are becoming more intense, more detailed — and somehow, easier to remember.

"One of my favourite dreams was from a woman who said that in her dreams she was so mad that this pandemic was happening that she turned herself into a giant antibody molecule, and kind of like The Incredible Hulk, got strength from [her] anger," Barrett, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

"She woke up feeling very, very satisfied from that experience."

Barrett has studied the dreams of Sept. 11, 2001, survivors and British prisoners of war from the Second World War. She also makes abstract artwork based on the dreams described to her — as well as dreams of her own.

An artistic interpretation of a dream by Barrett, who says she once dreamed about trying to fasten a gas mask on her pet cat before going outside. She found clip art of a lamb wearing a mask in a similar manner. (Submitted by Deirdre Barrett)

Since beginning last month, Barrett has collected stories of more than 6,000 coronavirus-related dreams from about 2,400 people worldwide.

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Most dreams, she said, tended to be metaphors of people's anxiety about contracting the virus. Some described being swarmed with bugs; others were overrun with slithering worms, witches or fanged grasshoppers.

Themes of loneliness, likely exacerbated by self-isolation and physical distancing, were also commonly described to her.

"I've seen, 'I've been put in prison' dreams. I've seen, 'I've been sent to Mars to be the colony of one on Mars,' [dreams]" she said.

On the flipside, she said, people who are sheltering with multiple people have described dreams of struggling to find a space to sleep in an apartment crowded with people on the floor.

Nightmares on the front line

Health-care workers, however, reported having "full-on trauma nightmares" that are far more intense than most people's dreams.

"Their dreams don't tend to be as metaphoric as other people because they're the one group that really do have very vivid, visual images of what it really looks like when somebody is on a respirator and dying of the virus," said Barrett.

Barrett is a psychologist at Harvard's Medical School. She's also a dreams expert. (Submitted by Deirdre Barrett)

"They are dreaming literally about trying to save people's lives, and often failing in their nightmares — whereas the rest of us don't have a real visual image for this, so we're plugging in lots of metaphors to represent that feeling of anxiety we have."

According to National Geographic, Italian researchers found that people stuck in lockdown experienced nightmares that bear similarities with someone going through post-traumatic stress disorder.

The story also cited an ongoing study at the Lyon Neuroscience Research Center in France, which has found that "the coronavirus pandemic has caused a 35 per cent increase in dream recall among participants, with respondents reporting 15 per cent more negative dreams than usual."

"As far as I know, no one has dream samples from the flu pandemic of 1918 — and that would probably be the most comparable thing," Barrett told The Associated Press.

"Now we just all have our smartphones by our bed, so you can just reach over and speak it or type it down. Recording our dreams has never been easier."

Barrett added that for some people, this pandemic has resulted in people getting more sleep than usual, compared to other crises where the opposite is usually the case.

"If they're sheltering at home and furloughed from a job or just working more their own hours, or not going to schools, lots of people are catching up on sleep and therefore, having this rebound in dream recall," she said.

How to dispel bad dreams

For people experiencing more stressful dreams than usual, Barrett helps teach what she calls "dream control," including thinking of a "favourite person" they aren't seeing regularly now because of the pandemic, or somewhere they want to visit for a vacation once they're able to travel again.

"Just picture vividly that person, or that place ... as you're falling asleep and just be telling yourself, 'I want to dream about this tonight,'" she advised.

"That tends to increase the dreams that are on the content you're asking for. But also just generally decrease anxiety dreams."

Written by Jonathan Ore with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Pedro Sanchez.

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