Researchers found that more people reported having stress dreams — dreams that were both vivid and unusual — during the pandemic.
SAN ANTONIO – You’re back in school but forgot to study for an exam. Swarms of bugs come after you. Your teeth are falling out.
Do these stressful dreams sound familiar to you? More people reported having them during the pandemic.
“I train at Toyota and when I’m having a bad day on the assembly line, if something about a part or building bothers me, I relive it over and over in my sleep,” said Jim Greg of Floresville.
More people reported dreaming more frequently during the pandemic; Dreams they could remember that were both vivid and unusual.
“What I usually dream about is aliens, a different form of existence than us. I usually have these dreams when I’m going through something, when I’m trying to figure out where I’m at in life,” said Northwest Side resident Amy Grunder.
KENS 5 spoke to dream researcher Dr. Deirdre Barrett on what these dreams could mean and how to control them. Barrett is an associate professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
In Barrett’s book Pandemic Dreamsshe shares what she learned from her survey of 9,000 dreams during the pandemic.
She found early on that dreams centered on the virus and the fear of contracting COVID.
“I’m having trouble breathing, I’m getting a fever, or a loved one has shown signs,” Barrett explained. “This notion of invisible monsters. I know they’re out there, but I can’t see them. In some people’s dreams, you could hear their footsteps but couldn’t see them, or you could see their shadow but couldn’t look at them.”
Some people, she said, have more symbolic dreams.
“Tsunamis coming my way, a tornado. Natural disasters seem to represent every type of crisis,” Barrett said. “I saw a lot of the same tsunami dreams after 9/11 when I was collecting dreams.”
RELATED: Vivid dreams during the pandemic? There’s a reason
A new metaphor for disasters she discovered was swarms of insects attacking people in their dreams.
But a few months into the pandemic, Barrett noticed a shift. Instead of dreaming about COVID itself, they dreamed about what caused the virus, such as lockdowns.
“Being thrown in jail in solitary confinement. A woman was told that she was chosen to be the first Mars colonist and she would be a Mars colony of one. She protested because she didn’t apply for it,” she told Barrett. “Another mom dreamed that homeschooling consisted of learning and passing her child’s exams and that she would fail the middle school math tests and her son would get an F in math.”
The stress caused by the pandemic also caused more common anxiety dreams.
“More of me being naked in public and not properly dressed, more of my teeth falling out… the bad pictures became more common,” Barrett explained. “You overslept. They forgot they took the course and didn’t study, they studied for the wrong course, they can’t find the classroom, or they come into the classroom and get an exam all in hieroglyphs.”
In her research, Barrett found twice as much anxiety in dreams during the pandemic as in a large sample she collected prior to March 2020.
In women, Barrett says, sadness and anger are significantly increased in dreams. This is not the case for men, she added.
“I think it’s because of so many side effects,” she explained. “[Women] did most of the home care, they did most of the homeschooling, they were on average more likely to lose their jobs than men.
To be clear, positive dreams have indeed been reported. For example, dreaming that the pandemic is over and cures will be discovered. Barrett says those positive dreams were the minority, however.
RELATED: Stress from coronavirus can lead to insomnia, expert says
So how can we control these stressful dreams?
First, Barrett says don’t believe dream dictionaries you see online. These are based on one person’s interpretation. Yours might be different.
She says before you go to sleep think about what you want to dream about.
“Think about your favorite dream you’ve ever had, or just a happy dream,” she recommends. “About half the time, if you’re trying to daydream about a certain topic for several nights, that content will show up.”
What can be most helpful, she says, is sharing your dreams with a friend.
“Sharing dreams is a shortcut to this experience that we are all human, we all have many of the same feelings.”