Our nightly dreams are a reflection of our daily realities. While we sleep, our brain combs through the events of our day, catalogues them, then stores them within our vast filing drawer of memories. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that after major crises—9/11, wars, natural disasters—our dreams become altered by these real-world events.
Earlier this year, Harvard Medical School researcher Deirdre Barrett conducted a survey to assess how our dreams were being impacted by the current COVID-19 pandemic. This study, conducted between March and July of 2020, asked nearly 3,000 people to recount their pandemic-themed dreams. The content of each dream was then run through a text analysis program designed to identify key emotional and physical concerns, including anxiety, anger, sadness, health, biological processes, and death. The results were then compared to a prior database containing a normative sample of pre-pandemic dreams.
The results showed that both men and women had dreams with higher rates of health concerns compared to the pre-pandemic sample, and that this elevation rate was the same for men and women. But that’s where the similarities end.
Women showed a significant spike in dreams containing themes of anxiety and death at a rate much higher than men. Women also showed a dramatic increase in dreams that contained themes of anger or sadness compared to the pre-pandemic sample. Men did not.
These results dovetail with other data suggesting women’s lives are being more negatively impacted by the pandemic than men’s. This is because the pandemic and the resulting lockdown exposed deep fault lines in our country’s gender inequality. Women on average earn less for every dollar a man makes, they are more likely to hold jobs that are part-time or offer little security and protections, they pay more for products (i.e., the “pink tax”), and the majority of single-parent households are headed by women.
Then there are all the things women do and don’t get paid for it. In the US, women spend two more hours than men every day doing unpaid work such as cleaning, cooking, and taking care of children, according to a recent report. In other countries, this disparity is three to six times greater. And that was all before the pandemic hit. Now that many children are being homeschooled and most meals are being cooked at home, this number is certainly greater.
Add all this up and it means that women are more vulnerable to the economic shock we are currently experiencing. This is not to say that men are not suffering under the current economic situation, just that women are suffering more. As a recent New York Times article summarized: “The coronavirus has worsened existing social and economic inequalities, especially for women. While both women and men are suffering the economic fallout of the virus across the world, it is women—already more likely to be in poverty than men, already more likely to be earning a smaller paycheck, already with less savings, already more likely to be in precarious jobs—who are being disproportionately squeezed.”
Given all of this, no wonder women aren’t sleeping peacefully. But what can we do about it?
On a global level, one of the best approaches is to support the politicians and policies that protect women in the workforce and strengthen gender equality across the board—especially since this is an election year. On a more individualized level, women can use their dreams as a divining rod to help them identify their most pressing concerns, then seek out healthy solutions.
According to Dr. Barrett, dreams are beneficial in exactly this way because they “help us understand our emotional reactions to the pandemic.” To illustrate this point, Barrett shared the story of one mother in her study who dreamed her child’s entire class was sent home to her apartment to be home-schooled for the duration of the pandemic. “When mothers of young children hear that dream, there is a laughter but also usually a strong empathy at the overwhelmed feeling the dream dramatizes. Your dreams can make you more aware of just what about the pandemic is bothering you the most—and sharing them with trusted others is a good conversation-starter for talking about these shared feelings.”
To learn more about Dr. Barrett’s dream research, you can check out her book Pandemic Dreams.