What does it mean to have strange dreams amid the coronavirus pandemic?

“It is a stress and anxiety response,” says clinical psychologist Dr Asha Bedar.
Updated 28 Apr, 2020 04:44pm

If you've been having strange virus-related dreams recently, you are not alone.

Since the coronavirus pandemic struck, leading to lockdowns and self-isolation, people across the globe have been reporting strangely vivid dreams, many of them about the virus itself. In fact, there is now a website and a Twitter account dedicated to dreams people are having during quarantine.

People from Malaysia to Italy and Brazil to Canada are reporting their bizarre dreams, some of them even nightmarish, using the platform ‘I Dream of Covid’, created by a US resident Erin Gravley.

I chanced upon the website after I went online to check whether I was the only one having strange dreams these days, stuck in my apartment in Denmark where I live alone being an international student thousands of miles away from home. One of my dreams — only second week into the quarantine — was about going to a meeting in my hometown, Hyderabad, where I have not lived for a good part of the decade.

The dream goes something like this: At the meeting, I shake everyone's hand until this one person gives me a puzzled look and refuses to shake hands. It takes me a while to realise that it was because of the social distancing rules, and once I do, I'm upset that I forgot about the no-handshake rules, scold everyone present for not letting me know earlier and then, we all wash our hands.

While my state of unreality wasn't exactly bizarre, others have shared far more complex dreams during this period.

“I was in a large tan room with reddish dirt floor and there were snakes in a snake charmer's basket. Each of the snakes was a solid colour of red or blue or black — the same colour my company uses in the coronavirus illustrations to send out updates. The snake would bite me then a nurse would come up and give me a shot of anti-venom, and then the next snake would bite [me] and I would get another shot. It would continue over and over; bite then shot,” a Missouri resident narrated on the I Dream of Covid website.

Several others reported about anxiety-inducing dreams which had a hint of reality but were mostly very strange.

More than 55 per cent said yes.
More than 55 per cent said yes.

Last week, through the Dawn.com Instagram account, we asked followers if they were having any unusual coronavirus-related dreams. More than 55 per cent said yes. When asked to elaborate, the responses ranged from dreaming of two heavy vehicles closing in on them while they were walking barefoot in traffic to being a superhero and saving the world from coronavirus.

Doomsday and apocalypse-scenarios were included in a few responses. A commonality among the majority of the responses was a feeling of dread; whether owing to being chased by weird creatures or people attacking homes — or testing positive for the virus.

One person said they dreamt their wedding was crashed by a coronavirus patient while in another person's dream, Covid-19 turned out to be just a prank.

Why is this happening?

While you may think dreams can be strange regardless of coronavirus and quarantine, and have little to do with reality, dreams have been known to change shape and form during times of crisis.

The compilations of such dreams is also not new. Writer Charlotte Beradt wrote a book called The Third Reich of Dreams in which she compiled about 75 dreams people had had during Nazi rule in Germany.

“All too obviously they reveal the inner workings of the minds of the dreamers, throwing light on how the Third Reich could so successfully penetrate deeply into a nation’s psyche,” the book’s preface said about the reported dreams.

Dr Asha Bedar, a clinical psychologist, told Dawn.com that what you dream depends on a large part on what you consume and are doing in your waking hours. Since we are consuming a lot of information about coronavirus, it is no surprise that we are dreaming about it as well. The information overload combined with our entire lives being affected by the virus leads to the anxiety penetrating our subconscious as well.

“It is also a stress and anxiety response,” said Dr Bedar, adding that some people process stress and anxiety caused by self-isolation and the entire situation in their waking hours while others process it when they are asleep.

She also said that it could be happening because this is a very unusual situation that we are encountering — and it reflects in our dreams. “Many other events, be it earthquakes or floods, come for a particular time and only impact a certain segment of the society but coronavirus has impacted all of us and we do not know when this will end; will it be two weeks or two months, we do not exactly know,” Dr Bedar explained, adding that this uncertainty induces stress and anxiety which manifests in our dreams sometimes.

She also warned that we could see a spike in unusual dreams as now the national conversation is turning towards an expected peak in in the month of May, which also falls in the month of Ramazan. People who are at the frontlines, like doctors and nurses, and other essential workers may also experience vivid and unusual dreams more than others as they are realistically more likely to catch the virus.

Another group that is reporting heightened feelings of anxiety, according to Dr Bedar, are those who were already working through their stress-related issues. "Even if they have largely been successful in dealing with them earlier and there is no real cause for them to be particularly worried about [the current crisis]."

How to deal with this?

If your dreams are getting particularly disturbing and nightmarish, there are several ways to deal with this. Dr Bedar said that a major factor in what you dream is what you consume right before you sleep.

"What is thought about and consumed during the day is processed in the waking hours but what is consumed before sleeping is mostly processed during it."

The first thing to do, therefore, would be to cut off any stress-inducing information and news, especially before you sleep. Instead, you can replace these thoughts and information with more relaxing ones.

While different things work for different people, one of the ways to relax yourself is through breathing exercises, Dr Bedar said.

"Breathing and meditation exercises are available on YouTube and they could be of help."

Another method is visual imagery that involves thinking about pleasant things like nature. You can think about being on a beach and feeling the sand, the waves on your feet.

This, Dr Bedar said, activates senses and relaxes people.

But even simpler things could work for some people, like listening to soothing music or recitation of Quran, said Dr Bedar — or even simply thinking about the good things that happened in your day.