Not All Pandemic Dreams Are Nightmares

Not All Pandemic Dreams Are Nightmares by Kelly BulkeleyPeople who are familiar with the deep patterns of their dreams seem to be having fewer nightmares compared to the general population.

This observation is based on a series of interviews I recently conducted with the participants in two dream research projects, one that began in early 2017 and one that began in December of 2019. It’s remarkable to see the different qualities in their dreams compared to other people’s pandemic-related dreams: less fear, more agency, more problem-solving, more willingness to change, more openness to future possibilities.

For many people, the first wave of dreams relating to the Covid-19 outbreak have been unrelentingly nightmarish. The results of an online survey of 2,477 demographically representative American adults in early April indicated that the predominant emotional themes in their dreams are fear, confusion, and uncertainty about the future. Other researchers using anecdotal sources have found similar results.

Part of the story here is that the stay-at-home conditions of this particular crisis have forced many people into a sudden encounter with their dreaming selves and the shadowy powers of their unconscious. This in itself can be a psychological shock, especially for busy, extraverted people who spend most of their time and energy in the external world. Having little or no familiarity with their inner worlds, they are struggling with an unprecedented surge of crisis-related dreaming. This isn’t really surprising: if you have no experience with the ways of your own sleeping mind, any sudden rise in vivid dreams, whatever their contents, is likely to feel scary and overwhelming.

Not so with the participants in these two research studies. The first is the Dream Mapping Project, a group of international artists who have been sharing dreams with me and creating collaborative art projects for more than three years. I recently spoke with four of the artists (by zoom, of course), located in Italy, the Netherlands, Uruguay, and New York City. I also spoke/zoomed with the participants in the 2020 Dreamers Project, in which nine people with high dream recall agreed to keep a year-long journal of their dreams starting in late December of 2019.

These thirteen individuals (11 women, 2 men) are definitely not representative of the general population. They are unusually intuitive and self-aware, and they have been vivid dreamers from an early age. None of them have been untouched by the pandemic: they, too, are suffering jobs lost, careers upended, families in peril, and local communities in distress. The members of these two groups are not oblivious to the crisis or in denial about it. But at least so far, their dreams have been remarkably adaptive and reassuring, in contrast to the nightmares plaguing so many other people.

In a future post, after more consultation with the group members, I hope to share some of their specific dreams. In the meantime, here are key themes as highlighted by the dreamers themselves:

  • They were dreaming about aspects of the Covid-19 outbreak early, in January and February, anticipating the social disruptions about to hit the world, and beginning to envision possible responses.
  • Their dreams definitely have apocalyptic themes of collective crisis, but not with overwhelming feelings of terror, helplessness, or vulnerability. Instead, they mostly maintain their emotional balance amid the chaos, observing and witnessing what’s going on, responding as best they can, and helping other people who are struggling.
  • Their dreams also have post-apocalyptic themes, looking beyond the present crisis to envision the new world ahead. How will we navigate through the altered realities of the future?
  • The problem-solving function of dreaming comes to the fore in their experiences. Their dreams view the crisis as a challenge that’s within their power to manage and solve. Their dreaming attitude is, here’s a problem, it’s big but not impossible, let me figure it out how to deal with it.
  • Some of them say they have been preparing for years, in their dreams and waking lives, for major shifts and transformations in global reality. They have long-standing practices in art, yoga, meditation, and dreaming, and these activities have made them less attached to the status quo and more comfortable amid the uncertainties of radical change. The world suddenly turning upside down is perhaps less of a shock to them than to people who have never engaged in such practices.

More research is needed, of course, to gain a better understanding of the full range of people’s dream experiences during this historically tumultuous time. But the results so far raise an interesting and potentially vital question:

Is deep familiarity with dreaming a source of psychological resilience during times of crisis, and if so, should this be included in future disaster preparations?

 

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, April 21, 2020.

More Dream Recall During the Covid-19 Pandemic

More Dream Recall During the Covid-19 Pandemic by Kelly BulkeleyA new survey shows a rise in dream recall, especially among younger people.  In the past month, about 30% of the American adult population has experienced an increased frequency of dream recall. Twice as many younger people (ages 18-34) as older people (55+) are remembering more dreams than usual.

Those are among the initial findings from a new survey I commissioned from YouGov, to get a quick snapshot of how people’s dreams have responded to the Covid-19 outbreak. Field work for the online survey was conducted April 1-3, 2020, with 2,477 American adults. The results have been weighted to approximate the US adult population.

Overall, 11% of the respondents to this survey said their dream recall had “increased a lot,” and 18% said it had “increased somewhat.” Only 4% said their dream recall had “decreased a lot,” and 3% “decreased somewhat.” A majority of people, 65%, reported no change in their dream recall.

The people whose dream recall has been most impacted are younger people, ages 18-34. Their recall increased a lot (18%) or somewhat (22%), compared to the older group of 55+ whose recall increased a lot (5%) or somewhat (14%). People ages 35-54 were in the middle, with 10% increased a lot and 18% increased somewhat.

With the help of research psychologist Michael Schredl, an additional analysis of the raw, unweighted responses showed that, when age is factored in, there are no additional correlations between increased dream recall frequency and the demographic variables of gender, ethnicity, education, or presidential approval.

It is worth noting that younger people also reported less dream recall than other age groups, with 7% of people 18-34 saying their dream recall had decreased a lot, and 5% decreased somewhat. The corresponding figures for people 35-54 are 3% and 3%, and for 55+, 2% and 2%.

Further analysis will hopefully reveal deeper patterns in these data, but for now it seems clear that the Covid-19 outbreak has impacted the dream lives of younger people much more strongly than older people. At least three possible explanations for this difference come to mind.

First, many previous studies have shown that young people in general have higher dream recall compared to older people. Perhaps it makes sense that during a time of collective crisis, younger people’s dreams would be more sensitive to change and disruption, since they are already remembering more dreams to begin with.

Second, the economic and social disruptions of the past month may have taken an especially hard toll on younger people, who tend to have fewer financial resources and depend more on urban social activities than older people. Younger people right now may be more exposed to the severe uncertainties and dislocations of the pandemic, generating a host of negative emotions that would likely spill into their sleep and dream lives. Stress, anxiety, and trauma are well-known triggers for poor sleep and unsettled dreaming.

Third, dreams do not simply reflect our present difficulties; they also imagine new possibilities and alternative paths into the future. This is the visionary, creative problem-solving aspect of dreaming. Perhaps younger people, with their naturally high dream recall and longer time horizons, have been stimulated by this crisis to even more dreaming than usual, precisely because of the urgent need for deeper wisdom and visionary guidance to lead us forward.

A final thought: The survey did not include participants younger than 18, but given the trend line among the three age groups, these findings raise the distinct possibility that children and teenagers up to the age of 17 are experiencing the most disrupted dreaming of all. Future research will have to verify that inference, but it might be worthwhile for parents, teachers, and therapists to consider the pandemic’s distinctive impact on children, not just in their waking lives but in their sleep and dreaming, too.

Next, I will post initial results from studying a collection of pandemic-related dream narratives, including several from January and February that anticipated significant developments in the crisis.

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, April 9, 2020.