It seems that everyone (at least in my corner of the internet) is talking about Covid-19 dreams – the strange, unsettling and unusually vivid dreams they’ve been experiencing since the pandemic has begun to make itself felt. Several studies are underway, including this one from noted dream researcher Dr. Deirdre Barrett at Harvard Medical School, and publications as diverse as National Geographic and Vogue are getting in on the act. [Edited to add: Dr Deirdre Barrett’s book Pandemic Dreams is now available to buy here.] So, what’s the story?
Lots to process
Well, to begin with, it’s probably not surprising that anxiety dreams are on the rise since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Our dreams help us process what’s going on in our daily lives, and in circumstances like these, there’s a lot to process.
Changes in routine
In addition, many people’s daily routines and hence their sleep patterns have changed significantly. Maybe you’re no longer getting up as early in the morning, maybe you’re staying up later at night, maybe you’re logging a lot more computer time than you normally do, and getting less exercise. All of these factors can affect your sleep, making your dreams more vivid and closer to the surface.
You may be experiencing dreams directly about the virus, with awareness of people wearing masks or avoiding each other on the street, or perhaps people becoming ill and dying. You may even find yourself dreaming about that vivid image that’s been all over the media of the globular, many-armed virus cell. Often, the visual dream imagery relating to the virus reflects the visual imagery you’ve been engaging with in waking life, so if you’ve been watching a lot of TV news, or spending a lot of time online with virus-related material, it wouldn’t be unexpected for these kinds of images to show up.
Even if you’re not dreaming directly about the coronavirus, it might be still be significantly impacting your dreams. That’s because the language of dreams is figurative, not literal. What do I mean by that? Well, one example might be if you are terrified of rollercoasters. Your brain associates the image of a rollercoaster with that feeling of extreme terror. So, when you are trying to process another experience of terror, you might find a rollercoaster popping up in your dream, seemingly at random.
Nightmares and anxiety dreams
Disturbing and upsetting dreams can be divided into two broad categories. Nightmares are those terrifying or traumatic dreams that wake you up with your heart pounding and a need to turn on the lights. They can have various causes, for example PTSD following a traumatic incident. Anxiety dreams are a lower grade of disturbance – they’re not generally terrifying; but they’re the dreams that leave you upset, disturbed, with a nagging uneasy feeling. They might leave you feeling bad about yourself. They might also be recurring, showing up at regular or irregular intervals, especially when certain things are happening in your waking life.
Why am I having anxiety dreams?
Although it mightn’t seem like it, anxiety dreams are your friends. They point out issues in your waking life that you need to deal with, but that you might have been consciously or unconsciously avoiding. Often, once the waking life issue is brought to consciousness and dealt with, the anxiety dream will resolve itself.
Threat rehearsal dreams
Threat simulation theory, as proposed in this review by Finnish researcher Antti Revonsuo, suggests that a biological function of dreams is to allow us to rehearse threatening situations that we are likely to encounter, thus increasing our chances of negotiating them successfully. He suggests that our early ancestors might, for example, have dreamed of hunting, thus ‘practising’ and honing their skills during sleep.
Cognitive gain from anxiety dreams
A modern example supporting threat simulation theory can be seen in a study carried out at the Sorbonne university in Paris in 2014 by neuroscientist Isabelle Arnulf. Her team examined the dreams of students the night before their medical school entrance exam. They found that those who had had a negative dream about the exam the night before achieved higher grades, leading them to conclude that there is a cognitive gain from the negative anticipation of a stressful event in dreams.
Following this logic, those Covid-19 dreams could be helping your anxious brain to anticipate the (often wildly unlikely) threats you might encounter, enabling you to figure out your best moves ahead of time.
Five common anxiety dreams
While everyone’s dreams are different, and everyone’s fears and anxieties are different, there are some anxiety dreams that tend to pop up a lot. Below, I’ve looked at five common anxiety dreams and offered some suggestions about what they might mean.
Again, there are no universal dream definitions – a dream symbol means what it means to you. In the example I used above, a rollercoaster might symbolise sheer terror to one dreamer, but a fun adventure to another. It all depends on your personal associations. The most reliable guide to your dreams is your feelings – if you can become adept at recognising the feelings associated with your various dream symbols, you’ll be half-way to deciphering them.
Falling dreams are very common and can signify feeling overwhelmed, out of control or powerless to prevent a negative outcome. Are you perhaps falling down in some area of your life? Are you about to hit rock bottom? It’s worth noting that while many people dream of falling, hardly anyone dreams of landing (you’ll usually wake up first).
Failing an exam
Failing an exam is another dream that most people have at one point or another. I remember years after finishing school, I dreamed of having to sit the Leaving Cert again (but this time the material had changed and I hadn’t studied). I wasn’t going back to school, but there were other challenges that I was worried about not meeting successfully. Are there tests, challenges or deadlines looming in your life? Are you worried about not making the grade in some part of your life?
Naked in public
Appearing naked in public is another common anxiety dream, and for many of us, this could represent fears of being exposed, or feelings of vulnerability. Are you aware of your areas of vulnerability? What are the parts of yourself that you try to keep hidden from others?
If you dream of being trapped in an out of control car, it’s worth asking where you feel trapped or out of control in your life. Is someone else in the driving seat in your life? Are you headed somewhere you don’t want to go? Do you need to apply the brakes to a situation in your life?
If you dream about being chased by a threatening figure, turn it around and try to figure out what you’re running away from in your life. Is there a situation, person or confrontation that you’ve been avoiding? Maybe it’s a part of yourself that you can’t face, or a truth that seems threatening. You’ll never know unless you turn around to see what it is.
What can I do about my disturbing dreams?
A first step to try resolve disturbing dreams is simply to establish a relaxing pre-bed routine, and to eliminate screens for at least two hours before bed. If your bad dreams are due to stress or mental over-stimulation, this should help.
Otherwise, consider that a dream may be trying to get your attention to illuminate some unresolved issue in your life. Once you start to work with the dream – and more importantly, to pay attention to the issue it’s highlighting, the disturbing dreams will often resolve themselves.
However, if they don’t, there are some things you can try. One technique often used to work with disturbing dreams is dream re-entry. You can try this alone if you feel comfortable doing so, or else with professional help. Here’s how it works…
First close your eyes and take some time to relax your body, perhaps with a breathing exercise or progressive relaxation. Then imagine your dream in as much detail as possible. See your dream just as it happened, but with one big difference. This time, you get to change the ending. You can talk to the threatening characters in the dream, ask them what they want. You can imagine yourself dealing with the dream threat in a capable, even heroic manner. Complete the dream in your imagination in a way that satisfies you, until it no longer scares or disturbs you. You can do this several times until your new created version of the dream becomes more real to you than the original.
Some final advice
Remember, the world is not normal at the moment. The situations in which many of us find ourselves are difficult and in some cases extremely traumatic. We are all trying to make sense of things and our dreams will most likely reflect our concerns and fears as we move through this pandemic experience. Which is to say, don’t worry too much if you have bizarre or upsetting dreams. That might simply be a normal response to an abnormal situation. Your strange dreams might be just what you need to help you process your daily experiences and get through them.
If you’d like to work more with your nightmares, your Covid-19 dreams, or any other dreams for that matter, I’d love to hear from you. During the current lockdown restrictions, I am available for phone or online sessions. Contact me for more details.