22 Jun 2020

Stories from around New Zealand and the World

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 1:35 pm on 22 June 2020

Dr Deidre Barrett from Harvard Medical School is a dream expert and has been collecting people's pandemic dreams to put in her new book called Pandemic Dreams

She started surveying dreams at the beginning of the pandemic and has heard from more than 9000 people. You can share your dreams with her here.

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Photo: Unsplash

Dr Barrett tells Jesse Mulligan she had carried out different studies before, collecting dreams after crises like 9/11 n the US and dreams from Kuwaitis after the occupation by Iraq in the early 1990s. She has also analysed dreams collected from prisoners who endured life in a Nazi POW camp.

“I’m very interested in how trauma impacts dreams, so this just seemed like an obvious time to collect them,” she says.

The kind of themes that cropped up were predictable – catching the coronavirus, being attached to a failing ventilator, having trouble breathing.

“Seeing blue strips on your stomach and remembering ‘oh yes, that’s supposed to be the first signs of Covid-19,” she adds.

“But, also just metaphors that the dreamer felt like were related to disasters. Lots of bug attacks – that was the most important metaphor for the virus that I hadn’t seen in past crises.”

Dreams included the secondary effects of the virus, including home schooling and the lockdown, which also became common themes.

“People who were self-isolating at home alone would often dream about imprisonment and being in solidary confinement. People self-isolating with other people would dream about these exaggerated crowded conditions where they couldn’t get through their own house because everyone had cots set up everywhere.

"They couldn’t close their door for privacy because everyone’s stuff was all over the place.”

One of the dreams mentioned in the book was from a New Zealand healthcare professional working in Australia. She was in paua shell, heard a frightening noise like thunder, but when she looked out she saw a cute seal pup and beautiful weather. The imagery was interpreted as someone who had been hiding ‘in her shell’ due to fears at the early stages of the Covid-19 outbreak, but had then realised that the impending doom had not materialised in her country as the virus was contained.

Other healthcare workers’ dreams have been less positive and much more like a manifestation of trauma response.

“Where I saw the real trauma nightmares, re-enacting people die as they tried to put tubes into them or ventilators malfunctioning. Those tended to come from the countries that were hit the most. I started seeing them out of Italy, New York, Boston, New Jersey and now Brazil – their healthcare workers are just having terrible trauma nightmares.”

You can buy a copy of Pandemic Dreams here.

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Photo: Biljana Jovanovic from Pixabay