Confrontation with a threat to our health, economic uncertainty, disruption to school, work and overall routines has clearly impacted all of us, and it appears this is showing up in our dreamlife.
Dreams are often intensified during times of stress and transition. You might reflect back on a transition in your life, such as starting a new job, attending a new school, moving to an apartment or home, or even the first nights on a camping trip or a vacation where one sleeps in a new space, and find at those times, you also had vivid dreams. You might have even had sleep hallucinations called hypnagogic hallucinations as one is falling asleep and hypnopompic hallucinations, which occur upon waking.
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We may be having strange and very SARS-CoV-2- — the name of the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease — centered dreams because for some who do not have a morning commute, we are sleeping later and hence waking just after a nice stretch of rapid eye movement, or REM, sleep. This means we are remembering our dreams more vividly.
For others, it may be that stress is causing more frequent and longer interruptions in sleep throughout the night. We normally wake as part of our sleep cycles throughout the night, but go back to sleep in seconds or minutes. With prolonged stretches of night time wakefulness, we may be able to reflect on our “COVIDreams” longer, commit to memory more details that might delight, haunt or puzzle us the next day.
So, what might we do with these dreams? Answering might be best anchored in a bit of neuroscience, psychoanalytic/poetic license and personal preference.
Tips for thinking about dreams
- Keep a dream journal and try to capture peculiar details, things that seem out of place or are particularly emotionally charged.
- If you are comfortable, share your dream(s) with a friend, family member or therapist – essentially, someone willing and even eager to listen (after all, recounting our dreams to people only half engaged can be dreadfully invalidating). You can choose to analyze them or not; sometimes just sharing the emotional experience of our nocturnal mental life can be enough.
- If you do choose to analyze your dreams, consider some terms that come to us from Sigmund Freud:
- Primary process: This is the raw material of a dream, before we’ve had time to revise and edit it; at this stage things may seem particularly weird or even embarrassing.
- Secondary process revision: This is what we do, without conscious awareness, in the retelling of the dream to ourselves and to others. Dreams tend to get more of a coherent scaffolding at this stage, and some therapists suggest that getting overly editorial at this phase (e.g., neglecting details that don’t fit or that are embarrassing) is a form of avoiding things that are important and potentially painful.
- Condensation is the notion that multiple people – even ourselves – could be concentrated onto one object, animal or person in our dreams. Therapists have emphasized that parts of ourselves are represented by just about everything and everyone in a dream.
- In displacement, we take impulses, fears, desires and ideas and we displace them from one object or person to another.
Tips for good sleep hygiene
- As much as possible, try to maintain a daily routine in terms of times of waking, making your bed, eating meals, getting exercise, enjoying social connection (while still respecting physical distancing) and sharing things that are emotionally important.
- At night, try to use cues that used to signal “time for sleep!” Those cues might include:
- Making your sleeping space as dark as possible (or having a night light)
- Making your bed comfortable and inviting
- Taking a body temperature-raising bath or shower just before bed
- Putting your screens to bed (outside of your sleeping space)
- Avoiding using your bed as a reading, TV or gaming lounge chair – trying your best to keep the bed only for sleeping
- Avoiding snacks or vigorous exercise just before bed
Tips for taking charge of your dream life
If you’re tired of particularly disturbing or weird dreams, first recognize that you’re not alone. A lot of people can empathize with your plight. If you’d like to change your dreams, consider this:
- Just before bed, visualize the types of activities you’d like to do in your dreams, the people you’d like to join you and the ways that you’d like to feel – both emotionally and physically.
- If you have difficulty imagining this in your mind’s eye, consider looking at photos of places you’d like to be or activities you’d like to do.
- Above all, be patient with your mind and don’t be hard on yourself. Visualizing techniques often, but not always, work. So, it may sound silly, but honestly telling yourself: “I know I have many important things to deal with and work through, so I won’t be angry or frustrated if don’t dream of precisely what I want. But, I would love to dream of ______ tonight”
Craigan Usher, M.D.
Associate Professor of Psychiatry
Program Director, Child & Adolescent Psychiatry Training
Oregon Health & Science University