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Oprah with a chainsaw, grasshoppers with fangs, vampire patients: Our dreams tied to COVID-19 are vivid, unsettling

Since the pandemic hit, we’ve been funneling anxiety into our dreams. Though we’re asleep, thoughts of the coronavirus continue to spark in our brains.

Margo Reed, a photographer in Philadelphia, has been re-creating dreams in pictures since 2018. Here she depicts a scene from a dream about her late grandfather. Since the pandemic hit, we’ve been funneling anxiety into our dreams.
Margo Reed, a photographer in Philadelphia, has been re-creating dreams in pictures since 2018. Here she depicts a scene from a dream about her late grandfather. Since the pandemic hit, we’ve been funneling anxiety into our dreams.Read moreMargo Reed

Oprah Winfrey deploys a squad of bruisers into the streets to scare up an audience for her show.

Her studio is a giant warehouse transformed into a hospital, with mattresses placed six feet apart.

Opening the program with upbeat patter, Oprah offers a special surprise: She revs up a chainsaw and cuts off the heads of everyone in the audience.

The Oprah dream was one of at least 4,000 connected to COVID-19 that Deirdre Barrett, a Harvard Medical School psychologist and dream researcher, collected by surveying 2,000 people throughout the world since March 23.

It hits a few themes illustrative of the way we live now, Barrett said: the feeling of being imprisoned that derives from being quarantined; the fear that something unspeakably bad is happening; the endlessly uttered admonishment to maintain six feet of distance from everyone else.

The Oprah part? That’s the bizarre extreme some dreams achieve, Barrett explained.

Since the pandemic hit, we’ve been funneling anxiety into our dreams. Though we’re asleep, thoughts of the coronavirus continue to spark in our brains.

“COVID-19 is worrying our dreaming mind like our waking mind,” Barrett said. “Dreaming is thinking, only in a different state. It’s more emotional, less linear. We think outside the box and don’t censor for logic or appropriateness.”

Dreaming of IKEA

Our coronavirus dreams can be kaleidoscopic, vivid, unsettling — or just odd.

Joannie Yeh, 38, a Media pediatrician and married mother of two children ages 5 and 8, had a virus-linked dream the other night set in the Conshohocken IKEA, a favored spot that her family was accustomed to visiting for four hours on Saturdays.

In her dream, the store was closing, and Yeh suddenly realized no one was wearing a mask or standing six feet apart. “It was strange because I was concerned, yet I was so happy to be there," she said. "It felt nice to be among people again.”

For Girija Kaimal, 47, an associate professor in the creative arts therapy department at Drexel University’s College of Nursing and Health Professions, sleep is something that’s become “out of whack.”

» READ MORE: More people are using antidepressants and antianxiety medications during coronavirus pandemic: survey

She, her husband, and two children, ages 8 and 16, are “on California time" in their Fort Washington home, “going to bed later, waking up later. It feels like a fun, and not-fun, time. There’s an invisible sense of unsafeness.”

Kaimal believes the changed hours — and the omnipresent virus — are affecting her dreams. “I’m from India,” she said, “and you find auto rickshaws there.” They look like motorized, three-wheeled golf carts.

“In my dream, the driveway was full of them. Then, a stranger was coming; the kids were telling me not to open the door. But I saw someone who looked familiar, so I thought I’d open it. It was the sense of being safe, and not safe. It doesn’t make sense."

A couple of elements didn’t add up in Mark Berman’s dream, either. A South Philadelphia graphic designer, Berman, 49, who’s married and the father of a 12-year-old daughter, has a fear of heights. Yet, in his subconscious, he was hiking along a snowy cliff — and smiling.

Suddenly, he fell, but he caught hold of a ledge that saved his life. Soon enough, Berman found himself harnessed, first being yanked upward, then learning how to climb on his own. He accelerated as he ascended the cliff, which turned into the balconies at the Academy of Music.

“A voice in my head was saying, ‘You’ll get through this,’ ” Berman said. “ ‘Just pull yourself up.’ ”

» FAQ: Your coronavirus questions, answered.

Long REM sleep

What Barrett is learning from her survey is that people are recalling more dreams than they ever have, and that the dreams seem more emotionally charged.

Because many of us are sheltering in place and not working, we sleep longer.

Dreams are loaded into sleep later in the night, said Barrett, author of Committee of Sleep, a book about dreams. We dream every 90 minutes when we go into REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Each REM period of dreaming lengthens the more hours we sleep. So, if we sleep eight hours, the last REM period (the sixth or seventh overall in the night) is the longest, and can last for 30 minutes.

» READ MORE: How to sleep when you can’t stop thinking about coronavirus: Experts offer tips

“Typically,” Barrett said, “our last REM is when we have the most vivid dreams. The longer we sleep, the more intensively we’re catching up on our dreams.”

In her survey, people had either literal dreams that depicted precise aspects of the virus, or metaphorical ones that reflected the panic and chaos people are experiencing.

She heard from dreamers who saw themselves get infected, then become unable to breathe, she said. They sought medical help but couldn’t make it to the hospital.

The biggest cluster of metaphoric dreams was about bugs, Barrett said: writhing worms, advancing cockroaches, grasshoppers chomping with vampire fangs. “We use the word bug to describe an unseen sickness,” Barrett said. That’s likely why we dream of them attacking.

Once in a while, some folks fought back in their dreams, with one woman becoming an avenging antibody molecule that sped through space killing the coronavirus.

Unlike adults, teenagers often dream of home as a prison where kids are confined against their will, and peers try to help them escape.

» READ MORE: ‘It’s been very challenging’: Philadelphians who live alone grapple with isolation

That’s not surprising, said Jodi Brown, a Bryn Mawr child psychologist. “One of the central themes I see is children unable to get to friends to reconnect." she said. "Plus, they’re dealing with an invisible danger they must prepare for.”

Zombies and broken needles

By far the worst dreams Barrett discovered were endured by health-care professionals: “They were full-on, classic trauma nightmares.”

Doctors and nurses were unable to slide tubes down patients’ throats. Ventilators choked to a halt. Injections became impossible as every needle broke.

In some cases, patients turned into zombies who attacked anyone with a face mask. Other virus victims had to be chained to beds to keep them from killing neighbors.

Doctors felt huge guilt in their dreams, as though they’d infected patients.

In one of the worst images, Barrett said, an Italian physician trying to get a better angle to intubate a patient stood on the hospital bed and lost his balance. He fell out the window, grabbing the patient to plunge with him. On the street, the doctor emerged without a scratch, but the patient had been beheaded.

“Health-care givers’ dreams look as bad as a wartime population’s,” Barrett said. “They were uniformly horrible, and there was not a single mastery dream among them where they helped the patient live.”

As wrenching as dreams are, it helps to discuss them, said Phyllis Koch-Sheras, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Charlottesville, Va.

“For children, we hope that parents take the time to not just dismiss the bad dreams and say, ‘Don’t pay attention to them,’ ” she said. “I encourage people to share their dreams."

Explaining your nightmares to others may defang them.

"The more you talk about them,” Koch-Sheras said, “the better able you’ll be to deal with stresses.”