Having vivid dreams under coronavirus lockdown? This is what they can tell you about your state of mind

Being put through demanding scenarios while we sleep may be a means of us finding emotional resources we didn’t know we had

Jade Angeles Fitton
Sunday 03 May 2020 15:25 BST
Stephen Colbert and John Mulaney interpret each other's dreams

Somewhere in North America, a man watches through a diner window as the moon crashes into Earth. In Italy, a woman’s scream is stolen by a ghost. In Spain, a man is turned into a tree while ash rains down around him. In the UK, a stone giant strains to hold up an overflowing dam. In our dreams, we are chased and kidnapped, shot at and rounded up by military personnel. We go back to the past. We get lost.

Since the lockdowns began, all around the world we are dreaming vividly, and on an unprecedented scale. Dreams are everywhere, and everywhere, people are talking about their unconscious lives. “What’s new is the international global nature of it all, and countries taking action all at the same time. So it is a global phenomenon in ways that [were] never perceived quite as such before,” says Sally Shuttleworth, a professor of English Literature at University of Oxford who has worked extensively on how sleep and stress has been viewed historically.

We can find parallels, however. Berlin-based journalist Charlotte Beradt risked her life documenting dreams of fellow Germans dreams under the Nazi regime. In 1966, this collection was published as The Third Reich of Dreams. In it, she found that, as was her own experience, Nazi rule not only invaded their waking life, but trespassed into their dreaming life too. “The only person I know who dared to talk back to Hitler, even in a dream, was a woman,” Beradt writes.

Today, we find ourselves in unknown territory. Instead of a dictator and a war, there is an invisible threat that lurks everywhere we turn – we are faced with its omnipotence every time we leave the house, and dogged by it at home on the news and social media.

With the pandemic, we are experiencing a different kind of authoritarianism: we must relinquish what we have associated with independence (physical freedom) to save lives. The virus’s spread often feels out of control, and our only means of controlling it is for our movements to be controlled by it.

And it’s this that is creeping into our dreams.

Since the lockdowns began, a glance at the internet shows the conversation about vivid dreaming is not confined to a country or continent. Everyone is talking about dreaming. “Dreams become more important for people during times of crisis because it’s still very deeply rooted in culture the world-over that dreams somehow give us an insight which we’re not capable of in ordinary waking life,” psychotherapist Matthew Bowes says.

Dreams have long been recorded en masse through traumatic and seismic events: 9/11, Trump’s presidential election and, during the Second World War, as well as Beradt’s effort, the Mass Observation Archive was set up and people’s dreams were monitored to keep an eye on the country’s morale.

Nightly, I was having vivid dreams. So I put out a call on the internet asking if anyone else had been having similar experiences since the lockdowns began. Within a couple of days, I had received over 300 detailed accounts. Like Beradt, I organised the dreams in regards to recurring motifs and scenarios to better understand how this situation is affecting us as a whole.

There are potential neurological explanations for this wave of vivid dreaming. “If we wake from REM sleep, we remember our dreams. So part of it may be that we’re sleeping longer, and that we then wake naturally,” says Russell Foster, professor of circadian neuroscience at the University of Oxford. Other factors could include a lack of “robust morning light exposure”; drinking less alcohol (not my experience); and disrupted sleep.

But an outpouring of vivid dreaming throughout society is not solely connected to somatic sources, bodily perceptions and physical stimuli; it is also symptomatic of collective psychic trauma. When we sleep, our bodies undergo essential maintenance and process information, and during REM sleep (when the majority of dreams take place) this includes emotional information. The theory of dreaming is that it essentially metabolises underlying emotions about the situation we’re currently in.

In the dreams I was sent, the most common motifs and scenarios were: being lost and confused; and the presence of military camps and military personnel, often checking ID cards, with dreamers often forgetting them.

George Lakoff put forward the theory that our lives are influenced by central metaphors that we use to explain complex emotional phenomena. “Rape victims, for example, have been known to have dreams about battles,” Foster explains.

Protesters at anti-lockdown rallies in America demand to be “set free”, stars and stripes are waved while people scream “freedom is essential”. This week we even witnessed armed anti-lockdown protesters storming Michigan’s State Capitol building. The protest was a potential hotbed for the virus as social distancing was willfully disregarded; the mentality also demonstrates a lack of hindsight: this is not the first time quarantines have been imposed, and it is unlikely to be the last.

But maybe these demonstrations aren’t solely the result of concerns over liberty; maybe they also have to do with the power of metaphor, and what Susan Sontag described in 1978 as “punitive notions” when it comes to diseases. The militarised language being used to describe this pandemic has certainly punctuated our dreams. With Covid-19, we are “at war” and we are all “directly enlisted”, key workers are “on the front line”, we have to “fight it”, and “beat it”. Not only does this language provoke the already frustrated into increasingly dangerous levels of action in their waking lives, the equivocation aims to excuse each avoidable death as an unavoidable casualty of conflict while aware that if this really were a war, we would have been prepared for it.

For many of us, the best way for us to “fight” the virus and help the key workers out there risking their lives on a daily basis is to be impotent. It’s a strange paradox to feed our subconscious mind, and it could help explain why in March, sales of guns in America reached an all-time high since background checks began in 1998. It could also explain why many of us are dreaming so vividly: it’s messing with our heads.

This “invisible enemy” is causing chaos and stirring up profound emotions while many of us sit at home doing very little. At night it would seem that our dreams give physical form to that invisible threat, enabling us to act out the “fight or flight” emotions we have been experiencing throughout the day.

Although our dreams at this time are frequently unsettling, there is a positive theory. It could be that being put through demanding scenarios while we sleep is a means of us finding emotional resources we didn’t know we had.

The emotion underlying even superficial threats in most of the dreams I read was loss. We are grieving the very real, physical loss of life and, since the lockdown, our old way of life. We can walk around like stone giants during the day, but at night will come the flood. Our dreams give shape to the concerns we have been either feeling or suppressing throughout the day. When the lockdowns are lifted, the world we return to will be disorientating and probably a little frightening. And though we may find that we have lost our grip on normality, while we have been sleeping, our unconscious has helped prepare us for that loss and the unknown dimension we are walking into.

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