What’s Up With the Recurring Quarantine Nightmares?
Bad dreams seem to be on the rise. But what you’re experiencing at night may depend on how you’re living right now.
In my recent dreams, I often find myself in filthy, broken-down bathrooms with stall walls that are too short and doors that don’t lock. I try to find a place to pee in private, but I never can. Other people can see me using the bathroom. I am panicked and embarrassed.
The dream has happened enough times that I started poking around to find out whether others were experiencing especially vivid bad dreams right now. In my search, I came across the blog I Dream of Covid — run by Bay Area resident Erin Gravley, who was interested in seeing how the current pandemic would affect dreams — which allows people across the globe to submit descriptions of their pandemic dreams. Since its first post on March 13, the site has amassed more than 130 reports, many of which depict the same kind of distress I’ve been experiencing while asleep.
Unpleasant and strange as these bad dreams might be for those of us having them, sleep experts aren’t surprised. “In a situation like the current one with Covid-19, with an increase in background stress, it makes sense that we might experience more disturbing dreams,” says Alex Dimitriu, MD, founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry and Sleep. “Freud, in his dream analysis, also referred to something known as ‘day residue.’” Day residue describes waking-life events that appear in our dreams and nightmares. These images and scenes typically pop up during the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep phase, according to Dimitriu, which tends to take place during the second half of the night.
There are two main types of bad dreams: anxiety dreams and nightmares. Research suggests different people are experiencing different types of bad dreams, based mainly on their pandemic experiences. “Nightmares are usually defined as feeling overwhelming terror,” says Deirdre Barrett, PhD, author of The Committee of Sleep and an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. “Anxiety [dreams generally have an] unpleasant, fearful emotion throughout… but not the sense of totally losing control.”