- The pandemic and ensuing lockdowns can fuel disturbing dreams.
- Psychiatrist Carole Lieberman said her patients are dreaming about hospitals, ventilators, and uncleanliness.
- Stephen Christman, who studied the impact of the 9/11 attacks on dreams, said visual media can increase the intensity and frequency of disturbing dreams.
- Limiting television news and social media a few hours before bed may help limit COVID-19 nightmares.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Connie, a San Francisco marketing executive, dreamed that both she and her mum were sick with COVID-19. “We were in a hospital that was dilapidated and lacking the necessary equipment. I woke up in intense fear and ended up crying because it felt very overwhelming and vivid,” she told Insider.
James Sinclair, a 29-year-old artist in Santa Barbara, said his dreams have grown increasingly claustrophobic. “I’m in a small studio. My friend keeps bringing in more and more furniture, and I can’t get him to stop,” he said. “It makes sense since I’m confined in real life, too.”
Ben Taylor, a 42-year-old from the UK, told Insider: “I’m at the grocery store, and a woman dressed in black invades my personal space, starts licking my face, and screams ‘Disease!'”
The coronavirus pandemic has invaded many of our dreams. In a new King’s College London/Ipsos MORI survey of 2,250 UK adults, 38% said they have slept less or slept worse since the country went under lockdown in March.
Carole Lieberman, a psychiatrist specializing in the impact of terror attacks on mental health, said the virus, and the steps being taken to combat it, “are filtering into all aspects of people’s lives – even their dreams.”
Several of Lieberman’s patients have reported nightmares related to COVID-19, specifically images of hospitals, ventilators, and uncleanliness.
“Freud called dreams ‘the royal road to the unconscious,'” she told Insider. “So while we may not be expressing the extent of our fears in everyday conversation,” about the pandemic, “these are being expressed in our dreams.”
With many jobs furloughed, schools closed, and commutes paused, people are sleeping longer, allowing for more REM sleep, which is when dreams occur.
Even once-mundane objects and situations are also fuelling nighttime anxiety: Lieberman has heard of dreams about “grocery stores with crowds of monsters instead of people, coughing, sneezing over produce.”
What’s fuelling our pandemic nightmares?
Stephen Christman, a psychologist at the University of Toledo, said we don’t even have to know anyone diagnosed with COVID-19 to have it dominate our sleeping minds. Christman has conducted research on 9/11’s impact on people’s dreams and found that proximity to the attacks didn’t impact the severity of people’s dreams.
“Some of our participants had friends or family working in downtown Manhattan, others didn’t. But there was no difference in their dreams,” he told Insider. “The only factor that predicted the increase in terror-themes in people’s dreams was how much time they spent watching TV on 9/11.”
Whether participants listened to radio reports or talked about the event constantly had no clear impact. It was the visual input, Christman said.
“Studies showed that people who watched many hours of TV – especially of the Twin Towers falling again and again – developed PTSD,” Leiberman added. “Even if they were nowhere near New York City or the other sites of attack.”
The arrival of social media in the years since 9/11 has only increased our diet of upsetting imagery.
How to get a handle on coronavirus dreams
Lieberman and Christman agree that, while it’s important to remain informed during the pandemic, overwhelming visual media can be a conduit to nightmares.
Christman encourages people to limit their viewing of COVID-19 video coverage, especially potentially disturbing images of panicked people in masks, sick people on ventilators, and makeshift morgues.
Lieberman recommends stopping news consumption and social media at least three hours before bedtime. Instead, she suggests focusing on a more relaxing activity like reading a book or watching a comedy. Listen to a podcast to remain up-to-date, or copy an article into an annotation tool that removes images.
Otherwise, the consequences could be more than just a bad dream, she warned.
“People who absorb themselves in hour after hour of media reports about the coronavirus may very well begin to suffer from symptoms of PTSD,” Lieberman said.