Alex Casey speaks to a dream expert about why so many people are suddenly remembering their vivid and often horrible dreams.
As the days begin to blur together and the only thing we get between sleeps is unimaginably horrible news and an embarrassing tootle around the block, it’s no surprise that our dreams are getting weird. Tiny Elton Johns buying burgers at the food court. Being covered in spiders having sex with each other. Michael Bay-style scenes of disaster. I asked the people of the internet how they had been dreaming, and the answers were chaotic and mostly quite scary and sad.
Margaret Bowater, 83, is the national secretary for the Dream Network and has been researching and writing about dreams for over 30 years. In her work she has seen the way that global events and collective trauma can increase the rate of nightmares and anxiety dreaming, from soldiers returning from Vietnam to the people who witnessed the collapse of the Twin Towers. Living through this current moment, she says, is no different.
“Dreams tend to reflect our major emotional concerns, so at the moment a lot of people are anxious about their physical survival, whether they will have a job or not, feeding their families, being isolated from their usual social network, worried about family members they can’t get to,” Bowater says. “There is real reason for fear, so it’s not surprising that people’s dreams are activating feelings of anxiety from other points in their lives.”
Because after you eventually fall asleep listening to a soothing podcast about the killer virus, you lose control over what happens next. “The part of our brain that makes decisions gets switched off as soon as we enter REM, which is when we have the most dreams,” Bowater explains. “We are then operating on the emotions present in our mind, which connects us with previous examples of emotions we have felt from stories, films, experiences – anything.”
After crowdsourcing a bunch of dreams, trends started to emerge. The first, and most obvious, was people dreaming about having Covid-19, with many waking up gasping, coughing or short of breath. “That’s clearly a direct fear of contracting the virus,” says Bowater. “In our dreams we can’t determine between what is real and what is not, so if you were feeling in the dream that you had caught an illness, you might well experience some of the bodily symptoms of it.”
“It’s not an abnormal response, but it’s not a prediction that you are going to get it either.”
People who dreamed of being stuck on the toilet, pissing on the carpet or pooing in a food court in front of Will Smith all share another emotional concern. “The theme there is exposure and feeling embarrassed,” says Bowater. “That would be consistent with the feeling that if you leave your house right now, you are under surveillance but you are also at greater risk of literal exposure to the virus.” She was unable to shed any light on the specifics of the Will Smith appearance.
If you are seeing family members or pets who have passed away in your dreams right now, that’s normal too. “That’s consistent with the general fear that some of us are going to die; the news is forcing us to face our own mortality,” says Bowater. “For those who haven’t done any serious thinking about death, this is an expression of the apprehension that death could be coming our way or for the people we love.”
She explains that when you feel emotions of mourning and loss in the present, your brain will often pull up an old memory associated with those feelings. “If you lost a family member or a pet and felt very upset about it at the time, that feeling will stick in your memory and will come back up when you are facing the issue of death at present times. It shakes us out of our complacency, especially among young people in their 20s who think that they are immortal.”
Nightmares about sleeping through a phone call, being late for a flight or missing a meeting are all rooted in genuine fears from our “new normal”. “A lot of people are dealing with new schedules and missing things at the moment. These dreams could be a reflection of your anxieties around that, or you could be putting yourself in the shoes of someone else in the population and living their experience.”
Another vivid theme in people’s responses was the feeling of trying to shake something off your body, whether you are suddenly a big wet dog trying to get dry or a person inexplicably on a beach covered in frisky spiders. “That’s fair enough too,” says Bowater. “That’s just a metaphor to symbolise the avoiding of contamination, literally trying to shake off the thing you don’t want – the bug, the little particles that might be on you from someone who is infected.”
But why does it feel like everyone is suddenly remembering all their dreams? That’s simple, says Bowater – it’s because most of us are slowing down in the morning. “A lot of people now don’t have to leap out of bed and run for a bus. If you’ve got more time when you wake up and you become aware of dreaming, you can remember more.” Beware, though, if you drink more than a couple of bevvies in a night, you’ll find you probably won’t dream at all.
If you want to try and get a little more control over your dreams, try limiting your social media and practising better sleep hygiene. “I think the amount of news on social media tends to heighten the anxiety because everyone is worried all the time, particularly younger people who tend to wind each other up,” says Bowater. Her advice is to switch off your phone an hour before bed, and keep it in another room if you can.
“It’s a matter of being sensible and trying to not let terrifying imagery swamp your mind,” she says. “You have to try and keep control of your own mind. There’s no need to be terrified, but there is room for rational fear. Go outside. Go for a walk, observe the cycles of nature. Appreciate the seasons, we have seasons of decline and seasons where things rise up again. This is like a tidal wave, it will eventually pass.”