Are Maskless Nightmares the New Stress Dreams?

Photo: Caroline Purser/Getty Images

You know how the dream goes: You’re somewhere familiar — your high-school English classroom, your office, a mall — when you notice something’s off … a suspicious sense of airiness, exposure. Oh, God. Oh, no. You forgot to put on clothes, and now you’re naked and humiliated in front of a jeering crowd of friends, strangers, and Hot Topic employees!

The naked stress dream is timeless. Medieval courtiers probably jolted awake after nightmares about stepping into an audience hall without their doublets. But in 2020, these anxiety dreams have taken on a particular, pandemic-era flavor. For many now, the nightmare scenario is no longer accidentally Porky Pigging in a public place; it’s being maskless.

While the details of many of these dreams are similar, the underlying emotions are different for each person. For features writer Molly Fischer, who had her first maskless nightmare last weekend, the anxiety came from the prospect of violating the social contract. She was in a mall with friends, she says, “and it repeatedly occurred to me, as I found myself in various mall places (stores, food courts) that I wasn’t wearing a mask and that a bunch of people around me weren’t either.” It was an ongoing sensation of “FUCK, FUCK, FUCK. I messed up.”

For Brittany Brown, a copy editor at New York, the anxiety is about her personal health and safety. In her dreams, she’s usually alone in a crowded space, without access to a mask, and worried that she’ll immediately contract COVID. And for Nicole, a mother of two, the fear isn’t so much about herself, but about her kids. “They’re in a crowded place, and not masked, and people are touching them, and I’m panicking.”

Maskless nightmares are far from the only kind of sleep disruption people have been experiencing this year. Ever since the pandemic turned the whole world upside down, many have reported having trouble sleeping, increased fatigue, and more vivid dreams. Stress and disrupted routines account for a lot of this, but when it comes to dreams, the truth is, science still isn’t completely sure why we have them in the first place. One prominent neurobiological theory argues that dreams don’t mean anything, they’re just the result of random electrical impulses firing in our brain, and any meaning we ascribe to them is just a story we construct after we wake up. But this theory doesn’t really account for how specific and widespread the maskless stress dream has become.

To me, this particular stress dream adds credence to the “threat simulation theory,” which argues that dreaming is a sort of defense mechanism, a way for humans to work through their fears and anxieties in a low-threat environment. In other words, by allowing you to repeatedly and safely play out a situation where you are without a mask, and putting yourself and others at greater risk of contracting COVID, your brain is helping you better prepare for and avoid that situation in real life.

Another theory is that dreams help people process emotions they might not have the ability or inclination to process in their waking hours — a way to “help regulate traffic on that fragile bridge which connects our experiences with our emotions and memories,” according to the Scientific American. So, if you’re too busy during the day to process how stressed you feel about having to constantly be shielding yourself and others from disease, you might end up working through those feelings in your dreams later.

Do stress dreams about forgetting your mask really help you remember to bring it the next time you go to the grocery store, though? Or are the people who are already hypervigilant about their COVID safety precautions already more likely to be the ones to dream about them? “I don’t know how much more careful I can be with masks,” says writer Katie Heaney, who had her first mask stress dream this week. “I think it just foreshadows how stressful it’ll be to go back to no masks, even after the vaccine. It’ll take time to adjust.”

With the number of COVID-19 cases peaking again in the U.S., maskless nightmares likely aren’t going anywhere soon. But hopefully, someday we’ll all be able to go back to dreaming about being naked and publicly humiliated instead.

Are Maskless Nightmares the New Stress Dreams?