“It’s a stretch to say we’re all being traumatized in the sense that psychology means,” she said.
Experiences of short, intense trauma, said Dr. Barrett — like battle warfare, or working 12-hour shifts at a hospital overwhelmed by Covid-19 patients — “have such inherently vivid specific imagery that goes with the trauma that they are likelier to be dreamed about in a more realistic way.”
The virus-related dreams of, for instance, nurses managing the chaos of the outbreak firsthand might be differentiated from those of the general public by their stark realism — dreams consisting of, in essence, variations of real life scenes from their days, played out in sleep.
“The people that are deciding whether to give a ventilator to one patient or not, who have bodies lined up in their hallways — those people are certainly meeting the usual criteria for what we call acute trauma, and we’d expect to see post traumatic reactions from them,” Dr. Barrett said.
(Those subject to severe trauma dreams may already be experiencing them, if they’re getting adequate sleep. If they’re currently sleep-deprived, the disturbing dreams are more likely to occur down the line, after their schedules have calmed.)
While people whose coronavirus experience consists chiefly of working from home may notice some literal dreams, theirs are, overall, more likely to be less realistic, she said. That doesn’t mean they aren’t related to the topic on everyone’s minds.
Dreaming in Collective Isolation
In 1940, a British Army officer named Kenneth Davies Hopkins began recording the nightly dreams of his fellow inmates at a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp in Germany. He intended to use the data for a doctoral dissertation, but died of emphysema in the camp before completing the project, leaving behind handwritten records of several hundred dreams.