Pandemic Anxiety Is Changing Our Dreams, Local Experts Say

Common themes among people's pandemic dreams include plague-like insect attacks, natural disasters and "bad man" figures, like mass shooters or serial killers

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The COVID-19 pandemic has turned our world upside-down -- and we’re apparently feeling it when we sleep.

Boston-based experts are seeing the psychological impact of a global pandemic playing out in their patients' dreams.

Deirdre Barrett, an author and psychologist who teaches at Harvard Medical School, conducted a global survey asking people to record their coronavirus-related dreams. She compiled her findings and published the dreams in her book, “Pandemic Dreams."

“It was a really obvious question to see how much these were similar or different from some of those past crises," Barrett said.

Common themes among people's dreams include plague-like insect attacks, natural disasters and "bad man" figures such as mass shooters or serial killers.

"I think that is partly sort of a pun," Barrett said. "We say, 'I’m coming down with the bug.'"

People who were sheltering with extended family or roommates reported dreams about exaggerated scenarios of crowding and a lack of privacy, according to Barrett.

Dr. Rebecca Robbins, a sleep researcher at Harvard and an associate scientist at Brigham and Women's Hospital, pointed to a rise in cases of insomnia during the pandemic, dubbed “corona-somnia."

"People who didn’t have insomnia symptoms before are suddenly experiencing sleep difficulties," Robbins said. "We also just have less certainty about our future."

Robbins' patients reported a similar common nightmares to Barrett's - being attacked by swarms of locusts. The majority of these dream themes are indicative of anxiety, according to Barrett.

Health care workers reported having eerily similar nightmares, Barrett noted, including a respirator that turned into an antique piece of equipment and wouldn't work or a water cooler that was attempting to pump water out of the tube. Others dreamed of being in an Emergency Room or Intensive Care Unit with patients dying around them.

People can control what they dream about by making a mental note of it before bed, according to Barrett.

"You fall asleep saying, 'I want to dream about X,'" Barrett said.

If nightmares continue to wake you up in a cold sweat, Robbins suggests getting out of bed or seeing a professional.

Both experts said much of these night terrors are rooted in anxiety, which can be reduced by getting more sleep. Another tip they offered is to add a period of down time an hour before bed into daily routines.

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