Will masks star in nightmares forever? Expert says 'pandemic-related dreams are here to stay'

Many people are experiencing different dreams about masks during the pandemic. Either they're not wearing one, or the people around them aren't wearing theirs. (Getty Images)
Many people are experiencing different dreams about masks during the pandemic. Either they're not wearing one, or the people around them aren't wearing theirs. (Getty Images)

The terrors and stresses of the pandemic during our waking hours have infiltrated our sleep for nearly a year now: sleepless nights, ultra-vivid dreams, dreams about vaccines, dreams about social distancing and, yes, dreams about masks. Turns out, dreaming about masks is one of many sleep-related side effects of the pandemic.

"I was going out to eat with a group of friends. I was walking through the main entrance, and there were groups of people waiting for their reservation on either side. No one had on masks, and every time I took a deep breath, I could feel the germs hitting the back of my throat, I was afraid to breathe, almost like being underwater," Dynasty Norris, a 30-year-old from Maryland, tells Yahoo Life. "The entrance turned into a tunnel of people with no masks, with me walking down the middle."

"I'm in some public place and everyone else is wearing their masks, but I'm not and I don't have one," Kris Haas, 24, tells Yahoo Life about a mask dream. "So I have to try to put whatever I can over my nose and mouth in a makeshift mask."

The dreams shared by both Norris and Haas reflect two common types of mask dreams many are experiencing: either you're not wearing one or the people around you aren't wearing theirs.

"The meanings of dreams always depend on the personal circumstances of the dreamer, but a dream where you forget a mask reflects a sense of personal behavior and responsibility, as well as anxiety about meeting the requirements of these new limits on social activities. A dream about others around you not wearing masks reflects a different source of anxiety, namely the failure of so many people," Kelly Bulkeley, a psychologist of religion specializing in dream research, tells Yahoo Life. "The same person can have both kinds of dreams, but some people may have bigger worries about one or the other of these pandemic challenges."

"Dreams of being caught without a mask are definitely the new naked-in-public dream," professional dream analyst Lauri Loewenberg tells Yahoo Life. "The emotional response in these dreams is the same as the naked-in-public dream: concern over how others perceive you. It is a stress dream, but, more specifically, it is a shame dream."

Loewenberg also says that mask dreams can change depending upon how you feel about masks in your waking hours. She shared a story told to her by a man who lives in Texas, who said that on the day Gov. Greg Abbott announced he was lifting the state's mask mandate, he dreamed he was in a grocery store that was giving away free meat. "This reflects his excitement about being able to feast on the freedom," she says. "And the grocery store setting, is, of course, one of the only places we have been free to go to since the lockdowns."

Conversely, she mentioned a client in Tennessee who has been having a recurring dream in which she's in a store, only to realize she's not wearing a mask. "In real life, she hasn't been inside a store since March of 2020," Loewenberg says of this client. "She has a son who is immune-compromised. She described the dream as mortifying."

Loewenberg also says that she has seen a change in dreams since the start of the pandemic. "In the first few months of the pandemic, our related dreams, collectively, seemed to be more about the virus itself," and she notes bug infestations, fires and the apocalypse as motifs she saw coming up in clients' dreams again and again in those early days and weeks. "But now that we have been living with it for a year, our pandemic-related dreams have shifted to be more about the lockdowns and the effects of the lockdowns rather than being about the virus," Loewenberg says. "The tone of our dreams has seemingly transitioned from fear to depression."

Of course, while dream analysts and researchers spend a lot of time thinking and talking about dreams, science is still unsure of the purpose that dreams serve. Nineteenth-century neurologist Sigmund Freud believed dreams were about repressed longing, while psychiatrist Carl Jung (who studied under Freud) thought dreams were the psyche's attempt at communicating important information to the dreamer. More recent research points to the idea that dreams are a way for us to process our emotions, particularly negative emotions like anxiety and stress.

A recent study out of Trent University in Canada analyzed the imagery in pandemic dreaming, with the data collected toward the very beginning of the pandemic. The researchers noted that as the pandemic progressed, they expected "individuals would report significantly more dream imagery related to the virus such as masks, coughing or isolation." Anecdotally, those predictions have proved to be commonplace.

As for our post-pandemic dreaming future, Bulkeley says our mask dreams aren't going anywhere any time soon. "Pandemic-related dreams are here to stay. This event has been so severe, lasted so long and impacted so many people in so many ways, it will surely have ripple effects in our unconscious minds far into the future," he says. "What often happens is that a new trauma stimulates a new round of nightmarish dreaming about a past trauma; this means that as time goes forward, we can expect people to continue dreaming of the pandemic any time something new hits their lives and triggers the same negative feelings from the pandemic era."

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