Why so many people are experiencing weird pandemic dreams

Job fears, mental turmoil and physical separation are causing many to experience vivid 'quarandreams.'
Image: A man sleeping on a bed while coronavirus hovers above in the darkness
Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Getty Images

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By Helena Humphrey

People around the world may be physically separated in pandemic lockdowns, but they are joined in at least one way — many are experiencing vivid and bizarre coronavirus dreams.

Nighttime visions of bugs, natural disasters and difficulties breathing are just a few of the recurring themes, traded in countless Zoom get-togethers, WhatsApp conversations and on social media, as "quarandreams" spread as quickly as the pandemic itself.

Florida-based dream analyst Lauri Loewenberg, who uses psychology to interpret people’s dreams, says lockdown stress, job and relationship worries and the sudden loss of familiar comforts have triggered a wave of surreal overnight encounters. Since the beginning of the lockdowns, she has found her Facebook inbox full of requests for appointments from people wanting to talk through their experiences.

Not only are people reporting more vivid dreams, but they are also recalling them in more detail and they are lasting longer, Loewenberg says, likening them to “feature length films.”

“A lot of people are also having dreams about hands,” she notes. “They fall off, skin comes off them, they don’t work.” It’s a vision with a simple explanation. “We’re afraid to touch anything. If you touch something, you could kill someone.”

Collecting dreams of the pandemic

While for many, these dreams are little more than conversation fodder between friends, for others the consequences could be serious. In an ongoing survey for the general public, Dr. Deirdre Barrett, a psychologist at Harvard University has been collecting thousands of dream case studies since widespread lockdowns began.

“I collected dreams after 9/11 and I am seeing very similar patterns now,” she said.

Frontline doctors, nurses and first responders “absolutely look like a group of people who are in an acute trauma situation.”

“Their most typical dream is that they're trying to take care of a patient. It's their responsibility to save their life. And they're failing,” Barrett said.

Overloaded wards, shortages of equipment or equipment failures are common themes. “They are trying to get a tube down the throat of someone whose passages are so constricted that they're not getting it down. Then the ventilator machine stops working.”

Barrett estimates that up to 30 percent could develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, with nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety and difficulty sleeping.

Psychological trauma in the wake of outbreaks is well-documented. The World Health Organization noted that the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa resulted in “profound psychosocial implications at individual, community and international levels.”

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Lauren Bateman, a humanitarian worker during the Ebola outbreak, developed PTSD upon her return to the United States from Guinea in 2014. Her task was a demanding and dark one, collecting data of all the burials that had taken place across the country, numbers she couldn’t stop tracking even after she was home.

She suffered from sleeplessness, panic attacks and nightmares, ranging from “lines of people asking me for data I couldn’t get,” to “having to put on the PPE and just feeling how hot and oppressive it was,” Bateman said.

“You weren’t allowed to touch people in West Africa, so for months when people would want to shake my hand, I would sort of take a step back,” she added.

At the time, few could relate to it. Many in America had yet to experience the anxiety that breeds in the midst of a serious outbreak.

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“I probably got a reputation of someone who was kind of odd,” she said.

Now, as the coronavirus pandemic continues, Bateman says her nightmares have come back. The difference now is, she has many more people to talk to about them. And she can offer advice.

“Years ago, when I started working in disaster response, I worked for a mental health professional,” she explains. “He had a great line I keep repeating to myself: for the most part what we are experiencing are normal reactions to abnormal events.”