For millions of people around the world dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, sleep brings no relief. The horrors of COVID-19, and the surreal and frightening ways it has upended daily life, are infecting dreams and exposing feelings of fear, loss, isolation and grief that transcend culture, language and national boundaries. Everyone from a college teacher in Pakistan to a mall cashier in Canada to an Episcopalian priest in Florida is confronting the same daytime demon. Each is waking up in a sweat in the dead of night. Experts say humanity has rarely experienced “collective dreaming” on such a broad scale in recorded history — and certainly never while also being able to share those nightmares in real time.
“It’s that alarming feeling of when you wake up and think, ‘Thank heavens I woke up,’” said Holly Smith, an elementary school librarian in Detroit. “Once it hits your dreams, you think, ‘Great, now I can’t even escape there.’” The psychological toll is staggering, particularly for health care workers whose dreams show similarities to those of combat veterans and 9/11 responders, said Deirdre Barrett, a Harvard University professor who is surveying COVID dreamers worldwide. She has collected 6,000 dream samples from about 2,400 people. So many people are sharing accounts of dreams online that there’s a Twitter account dedicated to gathering them in a virtual library under the handle “I Dream of COVID.”
“As far as I know, no one has dream samples from the flu pandemic of 1918 — and that would probably be the most comparable thing,” said Barrett, who has studied the dreams of 9/11 survivors and British prisoners of war in World War II. “Now we just all have our smartphones by our bed, so you can just reach over and speak it or type it down. Recording our dreams has never been easier.” The dreams are also exposing what is bothering us the most about the pandemic. The themes seem universal.
Dreams of a safe place suddenly overtaken by the virus speak to contagion’s terrifying invisibility, says Cathy Caruth, a professor at Cornell University who has studied trauma for 30 years. Pandemic dreams, she says, are reminiscent of the experience of Hiroshima survivors, who worried about invisible radiation exposure, and also of some nightmares described by Vietnam veterans. “They seem to be in part about things that are hard to grasp, what it means that anybody can be a threat and you can be a threat to everybody,” Caruth said. –AP