High Desert Sketches: The landscape of COVID-19 dreams

Art by Valerie “CrowCrumbs” Howard

The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting people’s dreams around the world. The United States, Great Britain, France and China are among the nations that have recorded an increase in dreams from their populations. We all dream, and there is a certain commonality between the effects caused by the new pandemic.

I graduated from law school almost half a century ago, and I still occasionally dream of missing a law school final. In those days gone by, if you missed a law school final you were expelled. For the first decade, even though I had graduated and had passed the Texas State Bar, I would have almost weekly nightmares about missing a final. After another decade I would dream about missing the final several times a month. In the 22 years I’ve been in the Big Bend, I’ve had only two or three of those frightening dreams – it must be the altitude. I still wonder why I never once dreamed about passing the State Bar of Texas.

As more of us face more months in the “stay-at-home” policy of the state and federal government, scientists around the world have discovered that more people than ever are reporting dreams that reflect both their anxieties and the stress of our radical social changes. We are herd animals, and when we can’t get together we go a little crazy, and it is going to show in our dreams.

Common dream scenarios collected by a group of psychoanalysis students in London called Lockdown Dreams include the dreamer running away from something or discovering that they’ve done something wrong. “These are typical anxiety dreams. It’s very pedestrian stuff in that sense, but it’s acted out with such vivid imagination, it becomes very strange,” said a spokesperson for Lockdown Dreams. “Everyone’s quite shocked by the fact that they’re having incredibly vivid dreams. That’s so interesting because our material waking lives have become, in a way, more dull,” he added.

The British are not the only one doing this dream research. In France, a group at the Lyon Neuroscience Research Center began a study on dreams and dream recall in March. The French folks study has found a 35 percent increase in dream recall and a 15 percent increase in negative dreams. For people not on the front lines of healthcare and emergency response, fears of the novel coronavirus are projected onto threats like zombies, bugs, and shadowy figures, which represent the pandemic metaphorically.

Not only have the number of dreams increased during the COVID-19 troubles, but the types of dreams have interested scientists, particularly ones experienced during REM sleep. Dreams tend to occur during the rapid eye movement, or REM, phase of sleep. Anxiety and low activity during the day can make it harder to get a good night’s sleep, and frequently waking up during the night can increase the likelihood that dreams are remembered the next day. Researchers tell us we normally use REM sleep and dreams to handle intense emotions, particularly negative emotions. Some researchers have noticed that frontline healthcare providers are having the most horrific dreams, mostly very realistic about trying to save a patient’s life and failing; some about getting infected by patients and realizing they themselves are dying. Mental health practitioners are reporting an alarming increase in the number of post-traumatic stress disorder cases by frontline healthcare providers.

No matter the content of the dreams, it is universally accepted that stress and anxiety are the cause of most distressing dreams. And as in all great disasters, this country needs a father figure to provide guidance and solace in our time of need. Unfortunately, all we have is a ranting Tweet Master who governs by personal vendetta and dispenses more bad information than the snake oil salesman of days gone by.

With all the stress and anxiety bouncing around the digital world, we need a nice Fireside Chat like those in the days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt from 1938-1944. Today, what we would get from President Tweet would go something like this: First, Tweet would find a burning house. Then, despite the cries of help, he would deny that it was burning. If a bystander called the fire department, Tweet would scream that he was a Trump-hating alarmist Democrat. When the firemen arrived, he would blame them for the nonexistent fire. When the fire was out, he would claim that if it ever existed, it was a conspiracy by Joe Biden and the Ukrainians to wreck his presidency.