Having Nightmares About Forgetting To Wear A Mask? You’re Not Alone

Photo: the author
Joanna Schroeder wearing a covid mask pulled down

We're ten months into the Covid-19 pandemic and I've finally gotten used to wearing a mask.

I even forgot to take mine off after leaving the bank yesterday and drove home with it on.  

Wearing a mask is no big deal these days, and almost everyone I encounter wears one. Even my two-year-old keeps her mask on now..

That's probably why I was shocked when I started having regular mask nightmares a month or so ago; dreams where I'm in a crowd of people and realize I'm not wearing a mask, or that my kids have taken theirs off. 

Turns out I'm not the only one having "I forgot my mask" dreams.

But why now, and what do these dreams about our Covid masks mean? 

After talking to a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in dream analysis, as well as dozens of other people like me, I think I've got it figured out. 

RELATED: The Weird Reason Covid-19 Is Making Your Dreams So Vivid

I remember the first few times I wore a mask during this pandemic. I felt like I couldn't breathe (even though I clearly could) and the steam floating between the mask and my face made me want to tear it off. It was such a new, confining feeling. 

It was an N95 from a pack I had left over after our home partially burned in the Woolsey wildfire in 2018. We bought them to sort through belongings before throwing nearly everything in our house into a dumpster. 

I knew I was lucky to have that mask, considering actual front line workers were facing a shortage of PPE early in the pandemic.

I took one mask out of the box for each member of my family and packed up the rest, sending them off to a physician friend who was working with Covid-positive mothers in a New York City hospital. As valuable as that big box of masks felt when facing a brand new airborne virus, I couldn't justify keeping them.

I had plenty of nightmares back then, but they weren't about Covid-19 or masks, specifically. They were more symbolic, like running from zombies while trying to find all my kids and gather them up.

I also had dreams about being locked in a bunker and unable to get out to help my family. 

These days, wearing a mask is no big deal.

Washing my hands obsessively, using hand sanitizer, and never touching my face when outside the house have become second-nature. I chase my toddler around mostly-empty playgrounds, scooping her up before she gets too close to other kids and spraying her hands with cucumber-scented alcohol spray. 

This wasn't the kind of mom I was with my older kids, who were always dirty from wrestling with their buddies in the mud and hiding out in forts. They shared drinks and probably never once had their hands squirted with alcohol. 

As objectively weird as this reality is, it's what life is now. 

Photo courtesy of the author

That's why I was surprised, a month or two ago, when I started regularly having Covid nightmares again.

In one, my family was at Disneyland, happily enjoying the day, when I realized we were still in the pandemic and my kids weren't wearing masks. I touched my face and discovered I wasn't wearing one, either. 

I looked up and almost nobody in the park was wearing a mask. People were coughing, wiping their noses on their forearms, and then just going about their day. 

I woke up drenched in sweat.

RELATED: 6 Ways To Make Your Face Mask More Comfortable

I thought I was alone in this until I saw three or four friends post on Facebook about their dreams. 

It seems a lot of people are having mask nightmares: terrifying, anxiety-provoking and even embarrassing ones. 

My colleague Micki told me that the other night she dreamed she was in a small elevator alone when a bunch of people came on without masks. They kept getting closer and refusing to put masks on.

In the dream, she told them, "I’m a flight attendant I’m around people all day. I’m going to get you sick!” but none of them would listen. She woke up in a panic. 

Another guy dreamed he was walking through the Boston children's museum where nobody was wearing a mask. He says the weird part is that he hasn't been there in more than five years. 

My childhood friend Mary says her dreams are usually some variation of being in public and the only one without a mask, unable to get away from people.

"In my dream," she says, "I pull my shirt up to cover my face, roam around looking for a way out, feel increasingly frantic because nobody can help me and I can't get away."

Reading through the comments on friends' Facebook threads about mask dreams, I counted more than 50 people who said they've recently started having these nightmares. 

RELATED: If You Refuse To Wear A Mask, You Don't Care About The People Around You

Linda Yael Schiller, LICSW, and author of Modern Dreamwork: New Tools for Decoding your Soul's Wisdom, says, "When we dream, our dreaming mind often chooses for us the information most relevant to our current life, or what we need to figure out or resolve."

This makes perfect sense to me. I had my first mask dream in August, a few weeks after my stepdad passed away from COPD.

My mom and stepdad, Tom, have lived in our guest house every winter for many years, so I spent the first few months of the pandemic in a state of near-panic trying to keep them safe. I did their shopping in the nearly bare-shelved grocery stores along with mine, did errands for them, and kept everyone away.

Although we knew that Tom was nearing the end of his life due to pulmonary fibrosis, the idea of him and my mom being separated due to Covid, or, worse, dying alone in a hospital instead of at home as he had always planned, was horrifying.

A week or two after he passed, I dreamed we were all out at a school event for my kids and people weren't wearing masks.

I remember physically pushing people away and shouting at them to put on masks.

We couldn't find a way out, but Tom seemed unbothered by it all. He laughed his famous laugh, then said, "It's OK, Joey, you don't have to worry about me now. I'm OK."

Yes, I cried like a baby. But it also felt like a release of all that pent-up fear and anxiety.

A friend of a friend mentioned that he had dreams about trying to protect his father from people without masks. In real life, his dad passed away twenty years ago.

Schiller says, "The emotions are our guide — the events in our life that we have the strongest emotions about, for better or worse, may be what we then dream about." 

Kirsten Clodfelter, a writer and mother of three, had her first pandemic dream just a few weeks ago, where she was in a super crowded venue without a mask.

But this nightmare was about more than just the anxiety of the virus. 

"Everyone around me kept telling me it was fine and I was overreacting, so the gaslighting from real life is definitely deep in my subconscious now," she told me.

Following the feelings we experience in our mask-related Covid dreams, as Schiller explains, seems to be key for understanding what they mean.

For myself and the person who also lost his dad, those feelings of loss and the need to protect the vulnerable people in our lives are at the center of the meaning. 

For Clodfelter, the turmoil of how masks (and the virus itself) are being used as social and political weaponry is clearly taking a toll. 

For every dream, and every dreamer, there is another unique meaning.

RELATED: Why It's So Upsetting To See Your Friends Not Wearing Masks; And How To Change Their Minds

In addition to helping us process grief, anxiety or fear, our dreams and nightmares can also be symbolic. 

Schiller suggests asking ourselves, "What are my associations to this object or person, what does it remind me of?" when trying to figure out what our dreams mean.

Obviously, the dream about my stepdad was about letting go of the role I took on as the protector of my parents, and letting go of all of the general worry I carried about my stepdad throughout the end of his life. 

After that one particular dream, I was better able to remember Tom as the vibrant, funny, energetic person he was my whole life, rather than the person who so sick for the last year. 

For others, the dreams we have about masks may be telling us to look deeper or learn an important lesson.

"Not having one or forgetting one may be symbolic of anxiety about the virus, and spreading or catching it," says Schiller.

"Is the dream a message to be more careful?" she asks, "Or practice more social distancing? Or having been judged or fear of being judged by others?"

Maybe, deep in your gut, you know you haven't been careful enough. Or maybe you're processing the fact that you fear losing friendships because others who've been less careful no longer include you in their plans. Or maybe you fear you've been over-reacting.

RELATED: Why Wearing A Mask Can Trigger Panic And Shame For Some Trauma Survivors

So, why now?

The timing of our new dreams isn't exactly coincidental.

From all of the comments and stories I've read, it seems like these dreams started around Halloween and have intensified throughout the winter holidays. I think that's because these holidays are like tent poles or anchors in our lives.

So many of our memories are based around these holidays, and to see them so dramatically changed —  trick-or-treating canceled, Thanksgiving dinners held via Zoom, and so many people celebrating Christmas and Hanukkah alone, away from their families — reinforces that the world is not the same, amplifying fears that things will never get back to normal. 

Wearing masks and social distancing are the only things most of us can do to end the pandemic, and that is a very helpless feeling, especially for sensitive or analytical people (of which I am both).

As the virus has intensified and we're entering a surge upon another surge, it's no surprise our dreams have intensified as well.

Thousands of people are dying from Covid-19 every single day right now. No wonder we're having nightmares!

If you want to further dive into the meanings of your dreams, Schiller suggests keeping a dream journal and looking for patterns.

"Talk them over with freind or family to see if others have any ideas you might have missed," she suggests. Resolving what's triggering the dreams in real life, when possible, or simply talking them through can help you manage the anxiety that may be fueling stressful or scary dreams.  

Of course, speaking with a dream therapist or other support person may be in order if your nightmares are particularly distressing or disruptive.

But hope is on the horizon, and some people's mask dreams reflect that, too. 

Some of my friends, however, are dreaming about what my friend Robert Burke-Warren called "the After Times". 

Robert posted on Facebook saying he had a "vivid dream last night of being in a crowded room and suddenly realizing I was maskless. A moment of worry that I’d forgotten it. Then I looked around, and everyone else was maskless, too. It was the After Times."

Another friend, Brent, dreamed he had friends over on his back patio and lots of friends and colleagues showed up. They all shook hands, and my friend realized they weren't wearing masks. He said they were all very flippant about it, because, in the dream, they were at the end of the virus.

Not surprisingly, both of these dreams happened the week the first vaccine was rolled out.

They are dreams about hope, that little seed that lives inside of us that keeps us going when everything else is feels dark.

I haven't had a dream like this yet, but I'm looking forward the night that I do.

RELATED: 5 Reasons You Feel Like Your Life Is Falling Apart During The Covid-19 Pandemic 

Joanna Schroeder is a feminist writer and media critic with a degree in gender studies from UCLA. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Time, Redbook, Cosmopolitan, BuzzFeed, Esquire, Vox, and more. Follow her on Twitter for more.