Dreaming in vivid detail that's haunting you all day? Here's what that means.

By Britni de la Cretaz
Apr 03, 2020 @ 3:15 pm
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Photo Illustration/InStyle.com, Images: Getty Images

I had a dream that my partner, quarantining with me and my two kids, packed his bags and left because it was too much to handle. I dreamt that I sent a press release over and over and over again, worried I would forget to do it. In another dream, I endlessly walk down a hallway searching for the bathroom.

Nearly three weeks into isolation amid the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve noticed something: My dreams have become incredibly vivid, and I remember them upon waking.

The only time I remember having such vivid dreams was during my pregnancies, when I had recurring sex dreams about Pitbull. That was (mostly) explained by hormone shifts that impact emotions and anxiety. But now, I’ve seen person after person tweeting about their own out-of-the-ordinary dreaming and wondering if others were experiencing it, too. When I sent my own tweet about the phenomenon, it received almost 200 replies. People are dreaming about their exes breaking quarantine to go to the ball with Kanye West, and running screaming down long dark hallways; saying they don’t remember waking up with such clear dream recall at any other point in their lives.

Yes, vivid dreaming is common during this pandemic, and there is good reason for it, according to the experts in my inbox. “This is global,” Robert Bosnak, a psychoanalyst and past president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, tells InStyle. “I’m working currently in the U.S., Australia, India, China, and Japan. Story is the same everywhere. People are dreaming up a storm.” 

There are five phases of sleep, and dreaming is most likely to happen during the REM (rapid eye movement) phase. A 2010 study found that vivid, bizarre, and emotionally intense dreams (the dreams that people usually remember) are linked to parts of the amygdala and hippocampus. Bosnak shares this theory, positing that all this remembered dreaming “has to do with strong activation of the limbic system governing dread and rage,” which happens predominantly in the amygdala.

However, he says it’s impossible to know whether people are actually dreaming more vividly, or if they’re dreaming just as much but sleeping more lightly, which can result in remembering dreams more than usual. A survey of nearly 1,000 adults conducted by the website Sleephelp.org found that 22% of respondents reported worse sleep quality during the coronavirus quarantine, because of fears or stress about COVID-19.

This jives for Joe Dobkin, an audio producer in New York. “I’ve actually been remembering fewer dreams than usual, since I’m sleeping less deeply,” he says. “Even though I’m very lucky to be in a comfortable and safe situation, I’m just saturated with a constant sense of dread.” (Cue the amygdala, firing on all cylinders.)

Others on Twitter have hypothesized that it is a trauma reaction, a stress reaction, a reaction to being isolated. All of these are likely true, to some degree. Dreaming is “a powerful way that we process intense experiences,” says Martha Crawford, a licensed social worker who started a blog to collect dreams about the Trump presidency, and has begun doing the same for the current pandemic. Nightmares are a common symptom of trauma and, according to a Nature and Science of Sleep report from 2018, they're considered the “hallmark of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)." Bosnak explains that there are two kinds of them: those “PTSD nightmares,” which tend to be recurring and not change much in content, and what he calls “digestive nightmares,” which can change wildly from night to night because they’re the way our brains are digesting our trauma and anxiety. Indeed, one 2011 study found that a reduction in REM sleep (where most dreams happen) affects our ability to understand complex emotions in daily life.

“We're dealing with a very intense cluster of very primal, existential anxieties right now — fear of loss of loved ones, fear of our own potential death, fear of suffering, fear of watching other people suffer, loss of contact with people we love,” says Crawford. “We're trying to keep our lid on and contain ourselves during the day and so at night, [dreaming] is the way we release that repression mechanism and start processing how we are making sense of these things.”

Experiencing intense dreams during times of collective crisis has happened throughout history. One person replied to my tweet to say they’d experienced the same thing after Hurricane Katrina. Charlotte Beradt’s book The Third Reich of Dreams catalogued the dreams people experienced in Nazi Germany. After 9/11, Bosnak and his colleagues tracked the content of dreams, too. Multiple people have started projects cataloguing the dreams during the pandemic. In addition to Crawford’s website, Dobkin has started gathering dreams for a podcast called “QuaranDreams,” and Erin Gravley has created the submission-based website I Dream of Covid.

“I’ve been interested in dreams for a long time,” says Dobkin. “Not so much in analyzing them, but more as stories.” He likens dreams to a hybrid of documentary and fiction that “gets produced automatically by your brain,” except you’re the only person who ever sees it, and if you don’t manage to retell it while you’re still close enough to it to remember it, it just vanishes. But episodes of collective trauma can make these individual experiences into shared ones. Gravley’s website was inspired by Beradt’s book, which identified themes among the dreams of people living under Hitler’s reign. “Whatever was happening as a collective, at the societal level, was washing down into the individual unconscious and being spit back out in certain archetypes,” she says. Common at the time were dreams about being under mind or body control, resisting constraints, and the loss of basic pleasures — all things that directly reflected what life was like under authoritarian rule. “This [commonality] really struck me, because dreaming feels like such a personal thing,” she says.

Gravley eventually hopes to accumulate enough coronavirus-era dreams that patterns begin to emerge. There are some already: people associating hugging with menace or danger, and food has come up a lot, too, which makes sense because people are hoarding it or worried about not having enough. Dobkin’s submissions have so far been a mixture of explicitly COVID-related content, metaphorically COVID-related things (dreams of being out in the world and talking to people with a sad sense that that’s not allowed in real life; dreams about loved ones who are far away; anxiety dreams about crowds and people standing too close to each other), and other usual dream stuff (sex, adventures, memories, “mundane shit”).

Other patterns that could eventually emerge might be based on geography and severity of the outbreak, but that is yet to be seen. “Will people in New York City dream differently than those in San Francisco?” Gravley wonders. “I would imagine, too, that certain professions will be dreaming differently. Healthcare workers, who are on the front lines and under a greater level of stress than the rest of us: How will they dream differently than, say, an accountant working from home?”

While the phenomenon of vivid dreaming and collective dream patterns is mostly a fascinating facet of the current moment, there are other reasons to pay attention to dreams right now. “People should realize that there is dread happening that is moving directly to the body and it is felt as fatigue and sadness and grieving, but the most dangerous thing is that it provokes rage and anger,” Bosnak cautions. “You should be careful with that, especially if you are sheltering in place with other people in a small space so you don’t start acting that anger out.” He cites the increase in domestic violence as evidence of this embodied rage that many people are feeling right now. He suggests talking about your dreams with others — not trying to make meaning of them, just sharing them — as a way to process them and acknowledge the anger that may be lying underneath the more palpable feelings of sadness or grief.

It’s still too early to know what our dreams will say about this moment in history, but by cataloguing them — whether through one of the projects above, though our social media accounts where we can share and process our dreams together, or privately in a journal — we can begin to create an accounting of the ways in which the social isolation and fear of this pandemic is shaping our world. And maybe, at some point, we can sleep peacefully again.

The coronavirus pandemic is unfolding in real time, and guidelines change by the minute. We promise to give you the latest information at time of publishing, but please refer to the CDC and WHO for updates.