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You're not imagining it: We're all having intense coronavirus dreams

Rachel Schnalzer, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Health & Fitness

What do a tidal wave, a lethal injection and masses of thin white worms have in common?

They are all images that have cropped up in dreams people are having about the coronavirus pandemic.

Many people are reporting more vivid dreams while self-quarantining, taking to social media to comment on the phenomenon. Take a moment to think back on your dreams over the past few weeks. Have they seemed a little more intense -- or upsetting -- than usual?

"I feel pain in my right shoulder, and see a huge grasshopper-like insect there. It has already chewed through the fabric of my sweater and is now gouging my flesh," one respondent described in a dream survey currently underway and conducted by Deirdre Leigh Barrett, Ph.D., author of "The Committee of Sleep: How Artists, Scientists, and Athletes Use Their Dreams for Creative Problem Solving -- and How You Can Too" and an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School's psychiatry department.

Barrett supports the idea that people are remembering more vivid dreams while in quarantine and is currently studying dreams that people are having about the coronavirus pandemic. That's where the tidal wave, lethal injection and worms imagery originated -- they all surfaced in the dreams of people responding to her survey. "I've seen a lot of bug dreams," Barrett says.

In Barrett's survey, respondents have reported dreams that are clearly related to the coronavirus -- contracting the illness themselves, or having an aging parent become sick. Others are more metaphorical, like dreams about insects. And while many are experiencing wilder dreams, doctors and nurses may be experiencing the phenomenon more intensely than others. "It's my informal impression that healthcare providers are having more extreme nightmares," Barrett explains.

 

But why are people dreaming so vividly during the pandemic?

First of all, changes in one's routine can stir up dream recall, explains Barrett. "When waking life is more vivid, so is dream life," agrees Rubin Naiman, Ph.D., a psychologist, clinical assistant professor of medicine and the sleep and dream specialist at the University of Arizona. "My patients routinely increase dreaming at times like this."

Naiman draws a parallel between the gut, which decides what food we consume is useful and what is waste, and the brain, which similarly consumes and processes information throughout the day. When we observe something normal, our brains don't need to "digest" it, he says. However, when something out of the ordinary happens -- like a pandemic -- our brains may process the experience through dreaming. That's why "difficult-to-digest" experiences may give us dreams, Naiman explains. "At a time like this, we're all directly or symbolically digesting information about the threat, about contagion," he says.

Speaking of symbolism, Barrett -- also an artist -- makes art inspired by her dreams. Below is a piece inspired by a pandemic dream she experienced, titled "Help, I can't wake up!"

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