Perhaps you're trapped on a subway that won't stop. Maybe Covid-19 shows up at your door in the form of a rockstar and asks you how long you'd like to live.
It might not be a nightmare exactly but it's certainly vivid — an imagining of the mind spurred by the coronavirus pandemic. These dreams, experts say, might be blessings in disguise.
If you haven't experienced a coronavirus-related dream first hand, you probably know someone who has or seen a post tagged #pandemicdreams. An informal survey of Inverse Daily readers yielded dozens of vivid descriptions of coronavirus-related dreams, ranging from hopeful to terrifying. Some are abstract, others are realistic, and all are certainly strange.
Take Nick from Lago Di Monte, Italy, who dreamed that his four-year-old grandson had transformed into a cross between a snake and a worm. Or Joan from Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania, who dreamed that she was cruising along a freeway when suddenly she was sneezed on by a feverish, passing truck driver.
Heather, a 33-year-old from California, dreamed that the virus took the form of tiny particles shaped like "dandelion seeds in flight" and stuck to people passing by, who in turn, infected friends and loved ones in "a field full of dandelions."
"The clincher was when an adorable dog ran up to me with the flowers covering the insides of his mouth and shooting out of his eyes," Heather recalls.
It's probably fair to say that of all the health effects of a global pandemic, weird dreams are probably not one we saw coming.
But perhaps we should have: Dream experts tell Inverse that they are increasingly hearing about coronavirus dreams, reflections of a real-life nightmare.
While unsettling, these strange dreams aren't all bad, dream experts report: They can help us better understand what our real thoughts, feelings, and anxieties are in quarantine and give us a healthy way to express those emotions.
What your quarantine dreams really mean
Deidre Barrett, a professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, tells Inverse that the bulk of coronavirus-related dreams she's seeing are anxiety dreams — not full-blown nightmares that are borne of experiencing some type of trauma.
To understand the difference, she says to look at dreams that were reported during the September 11th attacks. Those who fled from burning towers or experienced it in person often have realistic post-traumatic stress dreams that force them to relive the trauma. People who experienced the attacks via news reports, meanwhile, more often have anxiety dreams.
"After 9/11, I mostly saw these kinds of anxiety dreams that weren't as realistic as post-traumatic stress dreams," Barrett explains "In that sample, I saw something similar to what I'm seeing now with this group of dreams [about coronavirus]."
That said, the coronavirus crisis has hit many close to home — especially healthcare workers, many of which are having traumatic dreams, says Barrett. People can have dreams about the virus, even if they have only experienced it through the lens of social distancing.
In the case of 9/11, the anxiety dreams were less literal that traumatic dreams, but had obvious imagery: burning towers, crashing planes or hijackers with boxcutters, because the tragedy "came with a set of imagery," says Barrett. But for the coronavirus, she says, there's no imagery baked in.
"It's like an invisible storm is coming and you don't know what to do about it."
It's a microscopic virus. In turn, coronavirus dreams tend to be more metaphorical and pull from a more diverse array of images. When Barrett interviews coronavirus dreamers, she hears a lot of bug metaphors, with some individuals dreaming of "swarms of every bug you can imagine."
Tore Nielsen, the director of the University of Montreal's Dream and Nightmare Laboratory, says he's also hearing the coronavirus represented in metaphorical ways as well, like zombies attacking, or a storm gathering on the horizon, ready to engulf a town.
"Those feelings [visualized dreams] may reflect the same feelings that you're having during the daytime," Nielsen tells Inverse. "It's like an invisible storm is coming and you don't know what to do about it."
It's not solely coronavirus-related stress that's taking center stage in your dreams, Barrett adds. These dreams are probably also pulling from past anxieties and fears, and adding a layer of mysterious coronavirus-inspired stress on top. Nielsen's previous work suggests that adverse experiences in childhood may turn up in later life in the form of dreams, even if we're too young to remember them when they happen.
If you've lost a loved one before, or have had other past powerfully negative experiences, your anxiety-related dreams featuring coronavirus may your related fears more explicit, Barrett says.
But while the dream may be scary, it's also an opportunity to understand what parts of the pandemic feel so overwhelming, she explains.
"If you understand some of the nuances of what exactly you’re scared of and why, it often helps us calm that down," Barrett says. "You can put it in perspective if it’s picking up anxiety from your other issues."
And once you gain that perspective, there are things you can do to make yourself feel better about those dreams.
Why bad dreams can (sometimes) be good
Repeated traumatic nightmares that arise from life-altering tragedies can be extremely psychologically stressful. There is nothing beneficial about dreams that force us to relive trauma, says Nielsen.
But occasional bad dreams, as long as they're not truly horrifying, can actually help prepare the brain to deal with real-life situations, some research suggests. For example, an October 2019 study reported that people who experienced frightening dreams appeared less afraid when confronted with scary images during the day.
The idea that bad dreams themselves can be beneficial is still very hypothetical, says Nielsen. But if we process those dreams out loud — to a therapist, to a partner, or to someone in the headspace to hear about it — we can grow from them.
That's particularly true if we are able to explain the emotions represented in these dreams in a non-scary context, Nielsen says. By picking apart what you remember, you can declaw the experience. This effort gives you the chance to have your feelings change, he says.
"If you can get it to transform, you can feel better about it," Nielsen explains.
Importantly, not all dreams about the coronavirus are terrifying. Some are downright uplifting.
Barrett has heard stories of people who dream that they themselves are antibodies roaming the world and defeating the coronavirus. Others dream that scientists have discovered a cure or a vaccine.
Michael, from Woodbury New Jersey, dreamed that he found a cure himself. "For some reason, I dreamed that by inhaling a small amount of my athlete's foot powder it killed the coronavirus," he tells Inverse.
Dreaming you're a crime-fighting antibody or can cure the virus by inhaling foot medication may seem silly, but often people awake with positive feelings that carry on into the day and buoy a mood otherwise dampened by quarantine.
"The dreams that have an 'overcoming it' theme have people waking up in a much better mood, and feeling optimistic," Barrett says. "It gives them the message they're going to get through it."
Take it from Heather who dreamed she was spreading the coronavirus to others through floating dandelion seeds.
"Writing it down now, it sounds horrific," she says. "But I was left with an impression of hope."