The swarm of insects arrived early in this year of nightmares. With summer came equally unsettling dreams: of being caught in a crowd, naked and mask-less; of meeting men in white lab coats who declared, “We dispose of the elders.”
Autumn has brought still other haunted-house dramas, particularly for women caring for a vulnerable relative or trying to manage virtual home-schooling.
Deirdre Barrett, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, has administered dream surveys to thousands of people. “At least qualitatively, you see some shifts in content of dreams from the beginning of the pandemic into the later months,” she said. “It’s an indication of what is worrying people most at various points during the year.”
Barrett is editor-in-chief of the journal Dreaming, which in its September issue posted four new reports on how the sleeping brain has incorporated the threat of COVID-19. The findings reinforce current thinking about the way that waking anxiety plays out during REM sleep: in images or metaphors representing the most urgent worries, whether these involve catching the coronavirus or violating mask-wearing protocols.
The studies are rooted in a framework that holds that the content of dreams simply reflects what people thought, felt and did during the day. Cassidy MacKay and Teresa DeCicco of Trent University found that dreamers during the first phase of the pandemic recorded far more such shifts in their REM mini-dramas.
“These are classic anxiety dreams,” DeCicco said.
In another study, Barrett recruited nearly 3,000 people online to track and describe their dreams. These dreams, too, had all the hallmarks of heightened waking anxiety, but emotions like anger and sadness were much more prevalent among women than men. “The findings suggest to me this idea that men are mainly experiencing fear of getting sick and dying, health fears,” she said. “Women have been weathering more secondary effects; they tend to be the ones nursing sick family members, more often than males, for instance.”