A Waking Nightmare: Dreaming During a Pandemic

A Waking Nightmare: Dreaming During a Pandemic

By Shelby Smith

March 1, 2021

You’re on the way to the movies like any other night with friends. You smother your popcorn in butter and settle in for the film. Suddenly, you get pulled from the film’s world to realize your own is a real-life horror movie. As you look around, you’re surrounded by people, not a mask in sight. 

Cue waking up in a cold sweat.

Every facet of life has been undeniably altered in the past year in the harrowing wake of COVID-19. For those with particularly active imaginations and overzealous unconscious minds, the pandemic is infiltrating even the sleeping hours. 

According to Scientific American, 37% of people had “pandemic dreams,” often including some incompletable task or threatening encounter. Many of these dreams’ content “directly or metaphorically reflects fears about contagion and the challenges of social distancing.”

MSU senior and interdisciplinary humanities major Peter Morrison had one such dream.

“I was going on a date with a mystery man and everyone around had masks on. But the dream suddenly changed, and we were in an outdoor tent packed wall-to-wall with people, and the only one wearing a mask was the server. I remember trying to calm myself down in the dream, but all I could focus on was that I wouldn’t be able to go to my parents’ house for Christmas because I was exposed.”

Peter said, “In reality, I had this dream in mid-January and had already celebrated the holidays with my family. It’s the first dream I can vividly recall having in about four years.”

According to National Geographic, “some dream experts believe that withdrawal from our usual environments and daily stimuli has left dreamers with a dearth of ‘inspiration,’ forcing our subconscious minds to draw more heavily on themes from our past.” 

MSU senior Stacey* has experienced recurring dreams since the beginning of quarantine last year, featuring both the house she grew up in and her grandmother’s house.  Neither house is still in the family.

“I’ve always been a vivid dreamer but never before have the places and situations been so recurring. My dreams are bringing up such specific memories of a house I haven’t been inside in nearly a decade.”

Stacey identifies as a creative and a staunch extrovert. So, it’s no surprise her dream world has been overcompensating this year.

“I have a recurring dream that I am either out to eat or at the movies, and it’s like me and everyone else forgot about the pandemic, but all of a sudden I remember and am surrounded by unmasked people. Or I go in somewhere and have forgotten my mask, and have to try to shove my face in my shirt. It’s certainly not the most restful sleep,” said Stacey.

“I’m not at all sure why, but my brain keeps conconcoting different versions of a game wherein the stakes are high for me and it is a struggle to play. The details are so irrational, I’m not sure they can even be verbalized. Think sea creatures and giant teacups that one can quite literally get lost in.”

MSU student Lily* shares a similar experience.

“I’m too familiar with the ‘uncompletable’ kinds of dreams. A recurring one I’ve had during the pandemic is being trapped in a supermarket, and the shelves being absolutely packed with stuff,” said Lily. “So packed that I can’t find anything that I need or complete my grocery list. I’ll be wandering around looking for lunch meat or taco shells but they’re not in the aisle they’re supposed to be, I’ll be pulling random stuff off the shelves to look behind and there are groceries everywhere.”

Such a dream feels oh-so-familiar to the pandemic-induced panic to stock up on everything imaginable at the beginning of quarantine. But, like it does for Stacey, the past intrudes in exhausting ways.

“Sometimes my mom or my ex or one of my professors is there giving me really unhelpful advice and asking if we can hurry up and leave the store. I wake up feeling more tired than when I went to bed,” said Lily.

It’ll be years, or perhaps even decades, before people are fully aware of the psychological impact of this pandemic on, well, everyone. For now, perhaps you’ll work it out in your dreams. However your unconscious mind chooses to process the pandemic, be sure to keep a pen and paper on the bedside table in case you strike creative gold.

Shelby Smith is a senior double majoring in English and professional and public writing with a concentration in creative writing. Outside her time spent on The Current and with the MSU Writing Center, Shelby likes to listen to audiobooks and hand embroider.