Dreaming During a Pandemic: Abnormal is Normal

Updated: Mar 4

Originally published June 17th 2020.

Features Editor, Olivia Bybel, explores dreaming during a pandemic.

I wake to the sounds of my family talking and moving about the house. As I squint against the morning sunshine coming through the window my eyes sting. I wonder if I have slept in my contact lenses by accident. I close one eye to check and the floral pattern on my curtains is suitably blurry. I roll over and check the time, and while I calculate how much sleep I enjoyed (six hours, by the way) I remember the dream I have just left. This particular night I had flaming hot hands which I used to melt metal objects into a wall, barricading myself, and a lively cast of dream friends, in a cave. Some sinister force was breaking in from the other side, and I escaped by sliding down a suspiciously slimy tunnel, and into a bright, golden gloopy substance. Upon “opening” my eyes, I saw my own reflection around me, slowly sinking through the gloop, with my hair floating above me. The dream was definitely an odd one, and I added it to the list in my head of strange dreams I had experienced while on lockdown in my family home. My dreams on the whole have been more vivid, more complicated, and easier to remember than they have ever been. When, a few days later, I dreamt I was delivering a speech, convincing a group of dream people that women, as a gender, were as valuable to society, if not more so, than jarred dill pickles, I decided it was time to consult the experts. Upon texting my friends, inquiring whether their dreams had been “so weird lately” as well, I received enthusiastic and unanimous agreement. If it was happening to myself, and four of my friends, perhaps it was happening to everyone? I decided, as I usually do, to begin internet research. As it turns out, my very strange, and sometimes scary dreams were not out of the ordinary at all. People around the world have been experiencing a similar phenomenon during the COVID-19 pandemic and its ensuing lockdown. The time we are living through now is actually the perfect storm, in terms of causing strange or upsetting dreams, and remembering we’ve had them at all. Dreams occur during the REM, or Rapid Eye Movement, stage of the sleep cycle. It is here that the brain uses dreams to safely, and subconsciously, work through our memories and stresses. Some dreams are clearer than others in this regard. Where my cave dream is altogether confusing to me, my recurring dream that I am in St Andrews, doing regular activities without fear of infection, is less so. Besides a general concern for physical safety, the Covid-19 pandemic is also causing financial and emotional stress for many. People just have more to work through in their subconscious, and so dreams centering around the virus, and the lockdown, even symbolically, have become common. At the same time, in lockdown, many of our normal routines, activities, and practices have been put on hold. Usually, the brain uses our daily activity to form dream content. When many of our days look the same, or are quite empty, the brain has less to work with, and so may resort to memories from deeper in the past, or material we may not remember consciously, as well as material from television, or social media. Binge-watching Criminal Minds turned out to be an unfortunate choice of media for myself and my dreamscape. For example, one of the friends I polled experienced a dream that she was nine months pregnant, in labour, and escaping Nazi Germany with her family. How she, a modern woman, wound up in Germany in the 1940’s, she was not sure. She accepted the circumstances, as we often do in dreams, and used her historical knowledge of the Second World War to help herself, her family, and her soon-to-be-born child. We dream every night, and maybe our regular dreams are just as wacky as our lockdown ones, though seldom remembered. The same stress and isolation that is coloring dreams however, is also helping us to recall them after waking. Stress can cause restless and fitful sleep, also known as parasomnia. This is associated with increased dream recall, explaining why we are remembering so many of our dreams, rather than forgetting them when we wake. Some of the dreams you might be having, like my Criminal Minds serial killer ones, you may feel the urge to avoid. Thankfully, there are some tools we can use to return to a more normal sleeping and dreaming pattern, should we wish. To avoid restless sleep it helps to set a regular bed time and wake up time. With better sleep quality, dream recall falls. You, or I for that matter, won’t have to remember slimy tunnels, wartime, or even peacefully inhabiting St Andrews, even if that is what we are dreaming about. Using an hour before bed to wind down, can help our sleeping selves to be less stressed. You can avoid stressful media, or other situations, and try to do things that relax you, like reading or meditating. Going to sleep with less stress can make dreams more pleasant, and less topical to the anxieties that you might already be dealing with in the waking hours. Understandably, remaining stress-free can feel next to impossible right now. Maybe the most helpful thing to know when dealing with wacky, or even unwanted, dreams is that you are not alone. These experiences are just another symptom of the situation that we all find ourselves in. COVID-19 is scary, and lockdowns are isolating, but we can dream of a better tomorrow.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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