Women’s dreams have been more negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic than men’s dreams, according to a new international study published in the journal Dreaming.
“I have studied other dreams from periods of crisis: Americans after 9/11, Kuwaitis after the Iraqi occupation, and dreams from a Nazi POW camp. So as soon as the pandemic began, I was interested to see how these dreams would be similar to other crises and any distinctive elements they might have,” said study author Deirdre Barrett, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and author of “Pandemic Dreams.”
In an online survey conducted between March 23 and July 15, the researcher asked 2,888 participants to recount their dreams about the pandemic. He used a text analysis program called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count to quantify six dreaming themes — positive emotions, negative emotions, anxiety, anger, sadness, biological processes, body, health, and death — and then compared the results to a database of dreams from before the pandemic.
The largest difference between pandemic and pre-pandemic dreams was death-related themes. Death themes were more than three times higher for pandemic dreams compared to normative ones.
Overall, women showed significantly lower rates of positive emotions and higher levels of anxiety, sadness, anger and references to biological processes, health and death in their pandemic dreams compared with the pre-pandemic dreams. Men’s pandemic dreams, on the other hand, showed slightly higher levels of negative emotions, anxiety and death than in pre-pandemic dreams, but the effects were less pronounced than they were for women.
“Our dreams are more anxious since the pandemic began and we’re dreaming about it in a variety of ways — direct and metaphoric. Both men and women’s dreams reflect a lot of fear, and more references to illness and death than in normal times. However, these effects are even more pronounced for women, who also have more sadness, anger and other unpleasant body themes that are not significant for men,” Barrett explained to PsyPost.
“Some patterns are quite similar to other crises I’ve studied such as 9/11, Kuwaitis during the Iraqi Occupation, POWs in WWII Nazi prison camps, and Middle Easterners during the Arab Spring — the increased anxiety and death references are similar, but the illness references more specific to the pandemic.”
“In a more informal, close-read I did of the survey dreams for my book, Pandemic Dreams, there were some even more distinctive metaphors for COVID-19, however: bug attacks and invisible monsters. These reflect that this crisis is less visible or concrete than others we have faced,” Barrett added.
But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.
“I focused on gender differences and differences from dreams during normal times. I did not analyze my international data by country nor by time period within the span of the pandemic. The survey continues and I intend to do a comparison of emotions and themes from the start, middle and end of the pandemic. I’ve already begun to see a shift from dreams more directly about the illness to ones about its secondary effects: lockdown, reopening amid still high viral levels, homeschooling, etc,” Barrett said.
“Not yet documented in the statistical analyses, but informally, over the past three months, dreams have progressed from fearful depictions of the mysterious new threat to impatience with restrictions to more fear again as the world begins to reopen. And dreams have just begun to consider the big picture: how society may change.”
The study was titled: “Dreams about COVID-19 versus normative dreams: Trends by gender.”