Don’t Let The Coronavirus Bite: Dreams During COVID-19

By: Shayna Herszage  |  August 31, 2020

By Shayna Herszage, Managing Editor

Each week since the United States went into quarantine mode, I have remembered vivid dreams ranging from almost comically mundane things such as learning an imagined page of Talmud or making a funny meme to bizarre images such as my pillow exploding with insects. Many other people I have spoken to have shared similar experiences — remembering several dreams that live on the polar ends of mundane and absurd.

Dr. Britney Blair of Stanford’s Sleep Medicine Center explains that remembering dreams, as well as having these dreams belong on two very polar sides of a spectrum, is fitting to the changes we are all experiencing during coronavirus.

The absurd dreams, Dr. Blair believes, occur as a form of attempting to cope with the emotional toll of current events. Many professionals in the field of sleep view dreams as a way for a person’s brain to process the emotions from throughout the day. According to Dr. Blair: “One of the reasons … we are having this bizarre content and really vivid dreaming is because we don’t have a specific visual to attach to this kind of collective trauma.” Particularly due to the facts that the virus itself is not visible to the naked eye, and that most of the information people outside of the medical field receive is from the media, the brain generates its own dream content reflective of the emotions relevant to the individual. 

A common element of the absurd emotional processing dreams, says Dr. Dierdre Barrett of the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, is bugs — similar to my aforementioned dream about a pillow filled with insects. Other common elements include face masks and natural disasters. These components fit into bizarre dreams to help a person process the anxiety and other such emotions related to coronavirus and current events.

Meanwhile, the more mundane dreams, such as my dreams about Talmud and memes, may be occurring due to a lack of enrichment and stimulation outside of the home and technology. For example, Dr. Blair had a dream one night that she was shopping for a new bed by flipping through a catalog. She explains that the mundane quality and home setting of this dream may be reflective of her lack of new experiences in being stuck at home. She also believes that flipping through a physical catalog, instead of searching for one online, reflects her desire to have a break from technology, considering that almost all work and social interactions now occur through technology.

Additionally, Dr. Blair attributes the vivid remembering of dreams to a lowered sleep quality. While stuck at home, many people have started sleeping more hours each night. However, as she explains, a higher quantity of sleep leads to lower quality. As a result, people are waking up more frequently throughout the night, giving the brain a chance to process individual dreams and move them into long term memory.

In order to maintain more control over the content of dreams, Dr. Blair recommends sleeping in a dark room, having an organized sleep schedule, turning off technology at least 90 minutes before going to sleep. Additionally, she and Dr. Barrett both recommend focusing before bed on more desirable dream material.