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.