Our dreams change as we come out of the pandemic. here’s how
Many of us have experienced vivid and frightening nightmares throughout the worst of the pandemic. Depending on our level of trauma – losing a loved one or being a frontline health worker in intensive care units filled with Covid-19 – bad dreams could be excruciating.
Barrett continues to follow pandemic dreams. She has collected more than 14,000 dreams in at least 76 countries, two-thirds of which are from the United States. In her continued analysis of the data, she has seen a change in the content of our dreams since the vaccinations began and since states and local communities began to reopen.
CNN told him about the types of nightmares we had during the pandemic and how they’ve changed over time. The conversation has been edited slightly for clarity.
CNN: How can dreams provide insight into our lives during the pandemic?
Deirdre Barrett: Dreaming is just thinking in a very different brain state. There’s a lot of research on what’s called the dream consistency hypothesis, which has been proven pretty well: the more someone thinks about certain topics during the day, the more it’s going to show up in their dreams at night.
But in the brain state we find ourselves in during the dream, the visual areas are very active, the areas that tell stories are active and the emotional areas are active, while the verbal and logical areas are less active than habit.
We think about all of our usual thoughts and concerns, but we think about them in a very vivid, visual, narrative, or narrative way. Dreams can be more emotional, less logical, but the core content stays very true.
CNN: Why did you start collecting pandemic dreams?
Barrett: In addition to my work on dreams and their contribution to creativity and objective problem solving, I have carried out several studies on dreams during crises or trauma. I investigated dreams after 9/11 and dreams in Kuwait during the first Gulf War, both during the occupation and shortly after. And I came across an archive of 500 POW dreams in a WWII Nazi POW camp that no one had looked at.
It just seemed like it would be interesting to see how dreams during the pandemic resembled past crises. I launched a Global Investigation on March 23, 2020, and there were nightmares that I saw early on in other parts of the world that did not appear in the United States until later.
For example, in Italy, where the virus struck early and hard, medical professionals had those classic post-traumatic dreams in which someone died in front of them, and they felt it was their responsibility to save them and they could not. I didn’t see any in the United States for another two to three weeks, when cases in New York City started to climb.
Dreams like “Oops, I don’t have my mask” or “The others won’t wear their masks and I’m in danger” – I saw the ones from Asia early on, but they didn’t start in the United States until medical professionals told us to start wearing masks.
I have seen very similar dreams all over the world, but for the most part the timing was when the Covid-19 outbreaks were the worst in this region or when guidelines to the public changed.
CNN: How have our dreams changed this year compared to 2020?
Barrett: As the world began to open up, there were some pretty big changes in the proportion of dreams people report. For starters, I started to see more positive and optimistic dreams.
These optimistic dreams tend to be back in an important and crowded social situation while doing a favorite activity, like dancing in a nightclub or attending a sporting event or being at a family reunion with lots of family members who live all over the country.
Such dreams were quite rare in the first weeks of the pandemic, and when people dreamed like this, they tended to notice that they woke up and felt this wave of sadness. They felt like the dream had taunted them with something they couldn’t do anymore – as if they were seeing something from their past that was not in their foreseeable future.
But from mid-December 2019, when it was announced that the vaccines were very effective and were receiving emergency use approval, positive dreams started to increase.
It was also very striking that the dream could be the same as it was in the previous months of the pandemic, but now people are saying they woke up happy. The dream had brightened them up because they felt their dream predicted a future in which all would be well.
CNN: You mentioned in your article that women were the most affected by nightmares during the pandemic. Why?
Barrett: When I started the Pandemic Dream Study, I predicted an increase in negative emotions and references to illness, death, and the physical body. I compared the dream data I got to a huge pool of dreams that had been collected during a quiet time before the pandemic.
What I found was that pandemic dreams of men and women had two and a half times as much anxiety, twice as many references to illness, and four times as many references to death as captured dreams. before the pandemic.
But it was only for women that other negative emotions like sadness and anger were high. They were almost twice as high for women, but men’s dreams did not show more anger or sadness than before.
I was a little surprised when I first got this result, but when I read the dreams more closely I found that the bad dreams about home schooling were almost all from mothers. rather than fathers, and there were many female dreams of how to care for children or how to care for the sick.
Another category that has been brought up one and one half of the cases in women were mentions of body parts, such as fingers, hands, arms, toes, feet, legs, torso, breasts and genitals.
I thought it would be related to the disease, but often the dream would be “the roommate looks at this or that part of the body”. And I realized that there had been an increase in reports of domestic violence and sexual violence in the home during the pandemic and an increase in unwanted sexual approaches from platonic roommates. So it seemed that the dreams reflected issues that might be unique or more often experienced by women.
CNN: Are any dream topics reported during the pandemic continuing?
Barrett: People have continued to dream of masks – it is a commonly reported dream – but there is a subtle change. At first it was always a scary dream.
“I forgot my mask” or “My mask fell off” or “My mask is disintegrating in a magical way” – that was about half of the mask dreams. The other half was: “I am surrounded by other people who do not have a mask; or “They didn’t turn it on properly;” or “Their mask has holes.”
In these first pandemic mask dreams, the dreamer would panic and find it difficult to walk away from people because he was afraid of catching Covid-19. Fear was certainly the main emotion.
Early last fall, however, instead of fear and contagion being the problem when the dreamer realized he had no mask on, it would be shame or social embarrassment or “Whoa will people think of me that I am not wearing a mask? “
These fall into a more traditional dream metaphor of social shame, when people are in a mall and suddenly realize that they have forgotten their clothes. It really seems to me that these mask dreams have temporarily replaced the “naked in public” dream that many people have.
It’s been a really interesting change, and I’ll be curious to see how long it will last.
CNN: Based on your knowledge of trauma and nightmares, what do you expect from pandemic dreams?
Barrett: What we do know is that when people have experienced the same traumatic event, many will dream about it soon after it has happened. Then, if you look at the group average, it decreases over time, and dreams about the event disappear for more than half of the people.
Doctors do not diagnose post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) until it has lasted for a while, and it is not considered a disorder to have an increased startle response or flashbacks or daytime nightmares if they occur immediately afterwards. It’s a perfectly normal post-trauma reaction to have nightmares about the event for a little while, and then most people adjust.
However, some people will continue to struggle and possibly develop in the long term traumatic dreams, such as who is most directly affected by the event and who has experienced severe trauma. This group also includes people who already suffer from anxiety disorders and people who have suffered traumas prior to their history.
After 9/11, the people who had the worst nightmares were in and barely coming out of the building, first responders and people who worked close enough to see scenes of falling bodies. Many of the worst nightmares I have had during the pandemic come from nurses and frontline doctors.
Other people can also develop long-term traumatic dreams, such as people who were severely abused as children, women who were raped, and veterans. This happens even in people who haven’t continued to have recurring nightmares about the previous trauma.
A new trauma, even experienced second-hand, arises and attracts a lot of media attention and can activate dreams about early or recent trauma, or even a hybrid of the two traumas in the same nightmare.
I would say it will be the people who have had the most direct experience of death and death, those who are physiologically vulnerable to anxiety, stress and trauma, and those who have experienced trauma before and who are likely to have the longest struggle with nightmares.