The horrors of COVID-19 are seemingly giving proof to Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious and Freud’s work on dreams.
The coronavirus pandemic with its surreal and frightening ways has upended daily life and is infecting dreams and exposing feelings of fear, loss, isolation and grief that transcend culture, language and national boundaries.
Everyone from a college teacher in Pakistan to a mall cashier in Canada to an Episcopalian priest in Florida is confronting the same daytime demon. Each is waking up in a sweat in the dead of night.
Experts say humanity has rarely experienced “collective dreaming” on such a broad scale in recorded history — and certainly never while also being able to share those nightmares in real time.
“It’s that alarming feeling of when you wake up and think, ‘Thank heavens I woke up,’” said Holly Smith, an elementary school librarian in Detroit. “Once it hits your dreams, you think, ‘Great, now I can’t even escape there.’”
The psychological toll is staggering, particularly for health care workers whose dreams show similarities to those of combat veterans and 9/11 responders, said Deirdre Barrett, a Harvard University professor who is surveying COVID dreamers worldwide. She has collected 6,000 dream samples from about 2,400 people.
“As far as I know, no one has dream samples from the flu pandemic of 1918 — and that would probably be the most comparable thing,” said Barrett, who has studied the dreams of 9/11 survivors and British prisoners of war in World War II. “Now we just all have our smartphones by our bed, so you can just reach over and speak it or type it down. Recording our dreams has never been easier.”
The dreams are also exposing what is bothering us the most about the pandemic. The themes seem universal.
Dreams of a safe place suddenly overtaken by the virus speak to contagion’s terrifying invisibility, says Cathy Caruth, a professor at Cornell University who has studied trauma for 30 years. Pandemic dreams, she says, are reminiscent of the experience of Hiroshima survivors, who worried about invisible radiation exposure, and also of some nightmares described by Vietnam veterans.
“They seem to be in part about things that are hard to grasp, what it means that anybody can be a threat and you can be a threat to everybody,” Caruth said.
According to Barrett, many people dream they are sick with COVID-19 or of being overcome by what seem to be stand-ins for the virus: swarms of bugs, slithering worms, witches, grasshoppers with fangs. Others dream of being in crowded public places without a mask or proper social distancing.
Still others dream of losing control. In one such dream, the dreamer was held down by infected people who coughed on her. In another, the dreamer came across bands of people shooting at random strangers.
Most are lower-level anxiety dreams, not trauma-induced nightmares. But that changes dramatically for frontline health workers, Barrett says.
“The health care providers are the ones who look like a trauma population. They are having flat-out nightmares that reenact the things they’re experiencing and … they all have the theme that ‘I am responsible for saving this person’s life and I’m not succeeding and this person is about to die,’” she said.
“And when they dream about their child or parent getting it, for the care providers there’s always the next step in the dream where they realize ... ‘I gave it to them.’”
The end of the trauma will be a shared togetherness.
So many people are sharing accounts of dreams online that there’s a Twitter account dedicated to gathering them in a virtual library under the handle “I Dream of COVID.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.