Since the lockdown and throughout the pandemic, clients, colleagues and friends have been sharing their COVID-19 dreams with me and giving rise to some interesting questions. These dreams have ranged anywhere from being attacked by dragons to being stranded in foreign countries, unable to travel back home.
If you’ve been experiencing COVID-19 related dreams, you may have noted these dreams have a higher level of intensity, vividness and stressful themes compared to your usual dreams.
So what constitutes a COVID-19 dream and are they helpful? How do they differ from other pandemic dreams throughout history? Why are they more vivid and what can we do to alleviate the nightmares? What can we expect from our dreamworld moving forward post lockdown?
Let’s explore these intriguing questions and if you’d like to share your COVID-19 dreams, I’d love to read about them in the dream hub.
Be sure to include the tags #COVID-19 and #pandemic2020 to highlight your pandemic dreams.
You can also check out my televised interview on COVID-19 dreams with Studio 10 here.
What are some of the common COVID dreams people have been experiencing and their meaning?
People are experiencing typical stress dreams containing both literal and metaphorical themes including:
Running from danger - Typical stress or avoidance dream
Being attacked - By bugs, insects or other people who have the virus. This is symbolic of the microscopic threat of attack we are all facing.
Contracting the virus - Dreaming of contracting COVID-19 symptoms such as fever, being short of breath or a scratchy throat. Signifies the covert or overt fear we may have of contracting COVID-19.
Death or loss of a loved one - A covert or overt anxiety about losing a loved one to the virus and/or a product of grieving if unable to be in physical contact.
Travel - Being grounded and unable to travel or travelling as our dreaming mind compensates for lack of travel and the restrictions we are facing during lockdown.
Other common COVID and lockdown dreams recorded by Harvard Medical School psychologist Diedre Barrett include home schooling nightmares, natural disaster dreams and specific trauma related dreams experienced by frontline healthcare workers such as ventilator machines that malfunction, not having adequate PPE and replaying the insertion of breathing tubes in patients.
How do they compare with other pandemic dreams throughout history?
Similar to other pandemic dreams reported during times of crisis such as WWII and 9/11, COVID-19 dreams are marked by extreme vividness, intense emotion and often escalate into full scale nightmares.
The exceptional difference between previous pandemic dreams and COVID-19 dreams is that their nature is metaphorical. For example, Barrett noted that dreams after 9/11 were very literal, featuring planes crashing into buildings while COVID-19 dreams contain metaphorical themes including being attacked by bugs and swarms of insects. Barrett believes this is due to the invisible threat of a microscopic virus which the dreaming mind translates into visible imagery such as bugs.
Why are our dreams more vivid? What’s causing these wild and wacky dreams?
The limbic system, the area of the brain that regulates our emotions is most active during the REM state as other areas of the brain such as the pre-frontal cortex responsible for logic and reasoning shut down or in effect go to sleep. Any form of heightened stress or emotion we experience as a result of the pandemic can shift the limbic system, particularly the amygdala where our fight or flight response is activated, into overdrive. If we don’t acknowledge or process this stress or heightened emotion before sleep, our dreams will literally do this for us often in the form of highly vivid and intense feelings and imagery that can take on nightmarish qualities.
An example of this is feeling anxious about a situation before bed and dreaming about being chased as the body releases adrenaline in response to the initial anxiety.
Can these dreams give us some insight into how we’re coping?
Dreams and nightmares in themselves are coping mechanisms as our fears, anxieties and emotions are being processed and transformed into meaning and solutions if we have the inclination to explore them deeply enough.
And it’s the idiosyncrasies within our dreams that speak the loudest and deserve the most attention. As Harpur proclaims, it’s the dream about the insect bite, the tiny spot of blood on the snow, the squashed beetle - it’s in the tiny details that soul is most present, where we can suddenly drop through the crack in the fabric of reality and travel to the underworld.
For example, a client who dreamed she was running from flames and explosions in ‘Jet flame’ - a typical stress dream - also noted that she was feeling optimistic about her ability to escape, revealing her overall sense of optimism that she would make it through the pandemic ok.
Similarly a client who dreamed of being stuck in a plane on the tarmac while a flock of ducks were blocking the runway realised during a dream therapy session that although she felt stuck and frustrated the ducks weren’t stuck at all, they were still free to fly. Whilst embodying the ducks she felt a great sense of freedom and joy that she could relate to her newfound sense of joy and freedom for hiking which she had developed during the pandemic.
It’s often the overlooked idiosyncrasies in dreams and nightmares which provide the most compelling insight.
What can we expect moving forward post lockdown?
According to Barrett who has just released her book on Pandemic Dreams, there are several types of secondary pandemic dreams we can expect to experience as we move out of lockdown.
These include dreams based around the following themes:
Social distancing - anxiety dreams relating to non-adherence of social distancing such as being around crowds of people
Repetitive learning dreams - Assimilating to the new normal such as wearing masks and frequent hand washing
Reopening dreams - Anxiety dreams relating to society reopening such as filthy carpet in the workplace or bugs in the restaurant
How can we help stop COVID nightmares?
Although nightmares are often helpful, drawing our attention to the unavoidable or unacknowledged, they can be exhausting if they become recurring or frequent.
If you are experiencing frequent or recurring nightmares there are multiple methods that have been clinically proven to help ease the intensity and frequency of nightmares or stop them altogether.
Activate the PNS
To help prevent the onset of nightmares and PTSD dreams, studies have shown the effectiveness of activating the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) before bedtime to relieve anxiety and induce calm before sleep.
Dream incubation trials have reported a fifty percent success rate in eliciting more positive dreams. If you’re keen for a night off from COVID-19 related dreams or nightmares, focus your intent on what you wish to dream about and you have a good chance for success.
Simply recording the nightmare has been clinically proven to decrease the intensity and frequency of nightmares or cease them altogether. This can include writing out your dream, illustrating or creating artwork based on your dream imagery.
Embodied Imagination Therapy
Embodied Imagination Therapy (EIT) involves embodying different elements of the dream, offering the dreamer a direct experience from the perspective of the dream and unique insight into their nightmare or PTSD dream.
Image Rehearsal Therapy
Image Rehearsal Therapy (IRT) is based around creating an alternative storyline of the dream or nightmare and rehearsing this throughout the day and before sleep.
What stage should we seek professional help?
There is a strong link between nightmares and suicide. If you are having frequent nightmares (multiple nightmares a week), experiencing PTSD related dreams or feeling so overwhelmed by your nightmare/s that your daily function is being affected, please seek professional help.
Care to share?
Throughout the pandemic I’ve experienced the common COVID type running from danger dream and awoken with relief to discover I did not in fact have a scratchy throat as my nightmare had so generously implicated (although I had to triple check!).
My most memorable pandemic dream though was an intensely vivid travel dream where I was visiting a friend in the beautiful mountain tops of Bhutan, and which I’m hoping is more a prophetic than wish fulfilment dream!
Have you experienced any COVID-19 or lockdown related dreams? I’d love to hear about them in the dream hub.
You can post and share with the tags #COVID-19 and #pandemic2020 to highlight your pandemic dreams.
Deirdre Barrett: Pandemic Dreams. 2020
Patrick Harpur: Philosophers Secret Fire. 2009
Magi KB: (dream) Jet Flame 2020
Martina Kocian: (dream) No more fu*king tea! 2020
Photo by United Nations on Unsplash