Common Themes in Dreams about the Covid-19 Pandemic

Common Themes in Dreams about the Covid-19 Pandemic by Kelly BulkeleyNightmarish themes are plaguing people’s dreams during the Covid-19 crisis. The first wave of dreaming related to the coronavirus pandemic reveals how people are reacting to vivid fears and anxieties coming from all directions. Fears for oneself, for one’s family and friends, for the whole world—all threaten to consume people in their dreams as in their waking lives. A few dreams do show glimmers of hope and positivity for the future, although right now they are the rare green shoots amid a dark and frightening dreamscape for many people.

To be clear, not everyone is having these dreams. According to a new survey I recently commissioned from YouGov, only 7% of the American adult population answered yes when directly asked if they had dreamed within the last month of the Covid-19 crisis. More people ages 18-34 said they had a pandemic-related dream (9%) than people 35-54 (8%) and people 55+ (5%). This is consistent with the findings mentioned in an earlier post discussing results from the same survey: more people in the younger age group reported an increase in overall dream recall in the past month. (Field work for the online survey was conducted on April 1-3, 2020, with 2,477 American adults. The results have been weighted to approximate the US adult population.)

Perhaps that figure will grow as time goes on. As it is, 7% of all Americans 18+ amounts to around fourteen million people, a considerable number. For comparison, two surveys I conducted during 2016 asked if people had dreamed of the US presidential campaign, and the responses were 7% (May) and 8% (December). This suggests that within just a few weeks, the coronavirus pandemic has already had as much impact on people’s dreams as a long, hotly-contested presidential race.

The dream reports provided by participants provide a further window into the psychological effects of the crisis. Several patterns immediately stand out (gender and age in parentheses).

Fear of catching the disease. This includes worries about being tested, social distancing, isolation, and infecting others.

Contracting and dying alone. This thing never ending. (F, 59)

Wake up anxious about contracting the virus (F, 52)

Scared im gonna get it (F, 58)

i had a dream i got it and had to isolate myself from everyone. (F, 21)

I dreamt that someone came closer than 6 feet to me without my permission and I freaked out at them. (F, 31)

Fear of family and friends catching it. Many expressions of the frustration and sadness of being separated from loved ones.

My best friend passed it to me, I survived but he died from complications. (F, 18)

That a loved one had it and we had to see them through a window; they died and I was alone. (F, 56)

Scared, looking for family members who were lost. (F, 47)

Hearing that family has it and can’t get treatment or that they didn’t survive it. Like I can’t even wave from outside a window to their room or anything. (F, 30)

Difficulty breathing. This one of the most frightening symptoms of the virus. Difficulties in breathing are commonly found in night terrors and sleep paralysis.

That I woke up and couldn’t breathe. Felt like my lungs were filling up. (F, 36)

I was in a hospital bed, empty white room, I was coughing and stopped breathing. Knew that it wasn’t real whenever I couldn’t feel the bed I was on. Woke myself up. (M, 22)

I was dreaming I could not get enough air (M, 63)

Threats to work. The financial anxieties caused by the pandemic come through clearly in people’s dreams.

Losing my job. (M, 53)

Because of job loss I cannot afford to live. (M, 55)

I dreamed about coworkers and the virtual meetings we have had and their difficulty with caring for their kids in the meetings. I felt sad and overwhelmed. (F, 55)

Apocalypse. The end of the world is a recurrent theme in many religious traditions (e.g. the Book of Revelation in the Bible). Dreams are very sensitive to feelings that the world is fragmenting, falling apart, lapsing into chaos.

About the world crumbling. Things got tough. People suffered. Economy of some nation’s crumble…and lots more. (M, 28)

The virus spread uncontrolled, bodies piled up. Company’s closed down. People becoming desperate and violence increasing. (F, 37)

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, the Cradle of Life. (F, 55)

animals start contracting the virus and then it goes back to humans in which it turns far worse and kills 90% of the worlds population and becomes kind of an apocalypse. (M, 52)

I have dreams of the world ending, people going crazy and in all the turmoil im trying to get my older children home safely and they can’t get home. (F, 50)

I was homeless, hungry and scared. Everyone in the world was sick, it was coronavirus mutated and turned everyone into zombies. They were trying to kill me by touching me. I had no way to survive even if I avoided being touched. Woke up just before I died of hunger sickness. Been having very weird dreams lately. (M, 18)

Normal life? It seems hard to imagine that life will ever again feel calm and normal. Some dreams are peering through the darkness of the present to envision better possibilities in the future.

A normal day in the life, social distancing, no negative emotions. (F, 47)

I had a dream that we were attending a party for a friend’s baby. Instead of all of us going in person, we all had computers set up with some kind of FaceTime app. We celebrated the birthday this way online instead of in person because of the outbreak. (F, 41)

I dreamed I opened a drawer and found a bunch of masks. I was very happy. (F, 61)

Note: this post was first published in Psychology Today, April 12, 2020.

More Dream Recall During the Covid-19 Pandemic

More Dream Recall During the Covid-19 Pandemic by Kelly BulkeleyA new survey shows a rise in dream recall, especially among younger people.  In the past month, about 30% of the American adult population has experienced an increased frequency of dream recall. Twice as many younger people (ages 18-34) as older people (55+) are remembering more dreams than usual.

Those are among the initial findings from a new survey I commissioned from YouGov, to get a quick snapshot of how people’s dreams have responded to the Covid-19 outbreak. Field work for the online survey was conducted April 1-3, 2020, with 2,477 American adults. The results have been weighted to approximate the US adult population.

Overall, 11% of the respondents to this survey said their dream recall had “increased a lot,” and 18% said it had “increased somewhat.” Only 4% said their dream recall had “decreased a lot,” and 3% “decreased somewhat.” A majority of people, 65%, reported no change in their dream recall.

The people whose dream recall has been most impacted are younger people, ages 18-34. Their recall increased a lot (18%) or somewhat (22%), compared to the older group of 55+ whose recall increased a lot (5%) or somewhat (14%). People ages 35-54 were in the middle, with 10% increased a lot and 18% increased somewhat.

With the help of research psychologist Michael Schredl, an additional analysis of the raw, unweighted responses showed that, when age is factored in, there are no additional correlations between increased dream recall frequency and the demographic variables of gender, ethnicity, education, or presidential approval.

It is worth noting that younger people also reported less dream recall than other age groups, with 7% of people 18-34 saying their dream recall had decreased a lot, and 5% decreased somewhat. The corresponding figures for people 35-54 are 3% and 3%, and for 55+, 2% and 2%.

Further analysis will hopefully reveal deeper patterns in these data, but for now it seems clear that the Covid-19 outbreak has impacted the dream lives of younger people much more strongly than older people. At least three possible explanations for this difference come to mind.

First, many previous studies have shown that young people in general have higher dream recall compared to older people. Perhaps it makes sense that during a time of collective crisis, younger people’s dreams would be more sensitive to change and disruption, since they are already remembering more dreams to begin with.

Second, the economic and social disruptions of the past month may have taken an especially hard toll on younger people, who tend to have fewer financial resources and depend more on urban social activities than older people. Younger people right now may be more exposed to the severe uncertainties and dislocations of the pandemic, generating a host of negative emotions that would likely spill into their sleep and dream lives. Stress, anxiety, and trauma are well-known triggers for poor sleep and unsettled dreaming.

Third, dreams do not simply reflect our present difficulties; they also imagine new possibilities and alternative paths into the future. This is the visionary, creative problem-solving aspect of dreaming. Perhaps younger people, with their naturally high dream recall and longer time horizons, have been stimulated by this crisis to even more dreaming than usual, precisely because of the urgent need for deeper wisdom and visionary guidance to lead us forward.

A final thought: The survey did not include participants younger than 18, but given the trend line among the three age groups, these findings raise the distinct possibility that children and teenagers up to the age of 17 are experiencing the most disrupted dreaming of all. Future research will have to verify that inference, but it might be worthwhile for parents, teachers, and therapists to consider the pandemic’s distinctive impact on children, not just in their waking lives but in their sleep and dreaming, too.

Next, I will post initial results from studying a collection of pandemic-related dream narratives, including several from January and February that anticipated significant developments in the crisis.

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, April 9, 2020.