Dreams of Wildfire

Dreams of Wildfire by Kelly BulkeleyThe West Coast has a long history of wildfires, and dreaming about wildfires. A study from the 1991 Oakland Hills Firestorm has important lessons for those of us currently being threatened and harmed by the blazes in California, Oregon, Washington, and elsewhere.

On October 20, 1991, almost exactly two years after the Loma Prieta earthquake struck the Bay Area, a brush fire in the eastern hills of Oakland, California exploded into a racing wall of flame that consumed several residential neighborhoods with shocking speed. Twenty-five people died, hundreds were injured or suffered from smoke inhalation, and more than 3,000 homes and apartments were reduced to ashes.

Two weeks after the fire was finally extinguished, Dr. Alan Siegel, a clinical psychologist from Berkeley, and his colleagues Barbara Baer and Karen Muller initiated a very timely and illuminating study. They recruited three groups of people: 28 who lost their homes, the Fire Survivors; 14 who lived in burn zone but homes were not destroyed, the Fire Evacuees; and 18 people living outside the evacuation zone, the Control Group. All the participants provided an interview, responses to several questionnaires (e.g., the Beck Depression Inventory), and a two-week dream journal. Siegel and his colleagues carefully analyzed all this information, focusing special attention on patterns in their dreams. Their work appeared as a chapter in Deirdre Barrett’s excellent edited work Trauma and Dreams (1996).

Two of Siegel’s findings stand out as potentially helpful for people currently in the West Coast wildfire danger zone.

The first came as a surprise to the researchers:

“An unexpected finding of our study is the profound and largely unacknowledged reactions of the Fire Evacuees—people who lived in the burn zone but whose homes were spared. Their unremitting survivor guilt, depression, intrusive thoughts, and nightmares were more distressing than that of the Fire Survivors.” (161)

Siegel emphasizes the therapeutic significance of this finding. In addition to those who have been directly impacted by a disaster, the “lucky survivors” can suffer terribly, too, in ways they may try to hide or minimize as part of their survivor guilt.

The second important finding is that “post-fire dreams reawakened preoccupations with grief from earlier epochs” (167). The experience of a new trauma has the potential to reactivate memories, feelings, and physiological reactions from previous traumas. This is especially important to recognize when trying to help people find their path towards recovery and healing:

“Of all the factors shaping coping and recovery, one invisible dimension of the Survivors’ and Evacuees’ experience was dominant—the lingering emotional impact of earlier losses, traumas, and deprivations… Those with more profound backgrounds of trauma were more severely affected and slower to recover. Their dreams after the fire and around the anniversary of the fire frequently used the metaphor of their earlier traumas to depict reactions to the Firestorm and its aftermath.” (174)

Siegel’s work highlights a vital insight in caregiving work in the wake of a disaster: the people most vulnerable to psychological suffering from the present event are likely to be those who are carrying unhealed wounds from the past.

There is no getting around the long-term impact of such experiences on everyone involved, and Siegel’s observation about anniversaries is worth underlining. He says “firestorm survivors suffered profound reactions to the impending first anniversary of the fire” (173). This should be kept in mind when planning public memorials and commemorations of a disaster, which different people may experience in very different ways.

Still, there is reason to hope that with time and effective caregiving, recurrent post-traumatic nightmares can gradually change and transform in more positive directions, becoming less fixated on the specific triggering event, more varied and imaginative in form, and generally dreamier in mood and feel. This was a key finding of Ernest Hartmann in his 1984 work Nightmares, to which Siegel refers in his conclusion:

“A series of dreams often shows a progression toward mastery as a trauma is resolved. Nightmares that are like graphic memories of the trauma gradually fade, giving way to dreams less focused on the trauma and more mixed with other concerns.” (176)

This important study by Siegel and his colleagues adds further evidence in support of the idea that greater familiarity with dreaming can have subtle but significant public health benefits. Dreaming is a vital part of our innate crisis-response system, hard-wired into our brains over millions of years of evolution (and presumably many, many wildfires). Promoting more knowledge about dreaming and dream-sharing offers a simple and effective way of strengthening our collective resilience whenever disaster strikes.

 

Reference:

Alan Siegel, “Dreams of Firestorm Survivors,” in Trauma and Dreams, ed. Deirdre Barrett (Harvard University Press, 1996), pp. 159-176.

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, September 13, 2020.

Scheduling Work and School with Sleep in Mind

Scheduling Work and School with Sleep in Mind by Kelly BulkeleyThe Covid-19 pandemic has caused, in addition to a health crisis, an unprecedented crisis of work and education. Many businesses and schools have closed, or soon will; those that survive will not look or function the same after the pandemic as they did before. The only certainty is that the old ways are gone, and new ways must be created.

As society develops new structures for the future of work and education, now is a perfect opportunity to adjust the scheduling of these activities so they are consistent with current scientific knowledge about sleep. This would mark a big change from past practices. The basic human need for sleep has rarely been a factor in such discussions. But a neglect of sleep science is no longer tenable. The field of chronobiology (the study of the body as a 24-hour system) has grown tremendously in recent years, showing how sleep is an indispensable part of healthy functioning and conscious clarity in waking. Poor sleep weakens the immune system and makes it harder to recover from illness. It diminishes the cognitive ability to learn new information and remember it later. Chronic insomnia is a major factor in several maladies including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, and substance abuse.

Researchers have also found significant variations in the length, timing, and quality of people’s sleep. For instance, children and adolescents need much more sleep than do adults. Women tend to have more insomnia than men. Some people are “polyphasic” sleepers, meaning they sleep in several smaller amounts of time over the 24-hour cycle rather than all at once (monophasic sleepers). Some people do well with 6 hours of sleep a night, others need at least 8 or 9. Some people are most alert early in the morning, while others are slow to awaken and only feel truly conscious late at night.

All of this is to say, there is no right or normal way of sleeping. There is only what makes you and your body feel rested.

These two basic findings of sleep science—the necessity and variability of sleep—have important implications for how work and school activities are scheduled. For example, it’s not healthy for children, especially teenagers, to start their school days too early, or stay up too late doing homework. It’s not healthy for employees to work on shifts far out of sync with their natural sleep cycles, or to travel frequently to places in different time zones. It’s not healthy for schools or businesses to establish a single schedule governing the activities of a large group of people without building in flexibility for the significant number of people whose bodily rhythms will need a somewhat different schedule to stay optimally functional.

It often takes time for scientific research to overcome entrenched cultural attitudes. Such will hopefully be the case with sleep, despite the persistence of contrary beliefs. From Thomas Edison to Elon Musk and President Trump, a view of sleep as nothing but wasted time has prevailed among many Americans. Denying the need for sleep has become a symbol of heroic devotion to productivity, innovation, and success. Anyone who believes otherwise is simply weak or lazy, a slacker with no drive.

That attitude should be left behind as an artifact of the pre-pandemic world. The truth is that people who get adequate amounts of sleep far outperform their sleep-deprived peers—they are more alert, emotionally balanced, and capable of complex thought, and less likely to get sick or have accidents. Perhaps most importantly given the enormous challenges facing society today, people with sound sleep patterns are also more creative, better able to respond adaptively to unusual or unexpected circumstances as compared to sleep-deprived people.

The science is clear, if we choose to heed it. The path to a healthier, more productive, and more resilient future for students and workers begins with simply letting them get the sleep they need.

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today on August 24, 2020.

Dreams about Recent Protests Against Racial Injustice

Dreams about Recent Protests Against Racial Injustice by Kelly BulkeleyIn recent weeks, many Americans have been dreaming about police, protestors, and frightening acts of violence and destruction. But the dreams differ dramatically in the focus of their anxiety and distress.

A new online survey from YouGov asked nearly 5,000 American adults about their dream recall, insomnia, attitudes toward the Black Lives Matter movement, and dreams of the recent protests against racial injustice. A detailed analysis of the survey is forthcoming, but the initial findings reveal a number of recurrent themes in people’s dreams about the ongoing protests across the country.

Police aggression. One of the most vivid themes involved people being hassled, assaulted, or shot by the police:

“Bad interaction with a cop”

“Bad dreams about being stopped by police. None of the dreams end well”

“I have a 25 year son I sometimes dream I get the call he was shot by the police.”

“I was in a peaceful protest and the police attacked us. I was shot in the leg.”

“I dreamt I was shot by the police”

“I was at a protest like the one i really attended but when the cops threw the gas i wasn’t prepared like i was in real life and it hurt so bad and i fell and they arrested me. i was crying and asking them what i did but they wouldn’t listen”

Images of George Floyd. His horrific death on May 25th echoes through many people’s dreams:

“I dream about how that poor man was killed it hurts me to have seen that video that poor father”

“I keep replaying the guy dying and saying ‘I can’t breathe, Momma.’”

“it could have just have as easily been me”

“I keep having the death of George Floyd.”

Threats to home. For several people, their greatest concern is an attack on their family residence by looters and rioters:

“protesters coming to burn our home down”

“I’ve had dreams my home is broken into and myself and my family were hurt by others. I woke up and was in a funk for the rest of the week. I refuse to watch the news now a days.”

“It involved me beating up rioters and looters to protect my family”

“I dreamed rioters were shooting at my home.”

“Defending my home and family”

Merging the protests and the pandemic. Some people had nightmares about the convergence of the public protests with the COVID-19 outbreak:

“I was missing a mask and terrified of being near people. But people kept getting close and everyone was marching and everyone was happy and I was trying to act happy too and not let on how scared I was.”

“Was attending a protest with friends in the dream and no one was wearing face masks, and it was a stressful dream because no one was listening to me about the importance of our face masks during the protest!”

If you, or anyone you know, have dreams like these, here are a couple of suggestions.

Be careful about your media consumption. It doesn’t help anyone if you become overwhelmed and paralyzed by mental distress.

Be careful, too, about hasty interpretations. Every dream has multiple meanings, some of which take time and reflection to recognize. It’s always worth considering the possibility of both literal and symbolic meanings. For instance, dreaming of an attack on your home might reflect an actual physical danger to your house, and/or it might reflect a different kind of challenge to the comfort and familiarity of your life, symbolized by your home. Dreams don’t solve our problems, but they do give us emotionally honest portraits of what those problems are and where we need to direct more conscious attention and effort towards change.

The reports above included no further comments or associations, so we cannot be sure what exactly the dreams mean to the dreamer. But we do know, thanks to Charlotte Beradt’s 1966 book The Third Reich of Dreams, along with the research of other historians and anthropologists, that whatever else they might mean for the individual, dreams can provide powerful, accurate, and critically insightful visions of social reality. Especially in times of community crisis, conflict, and trauma, dreams offer a valuable source of collective awareness.

 

Note: The responses and dream reports from this survey will be available soon in the Sleep and Dream Database, an open-access digital archive for empirical dream research.

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 4,947 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 15th – 19th June 2020.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all US adults (aged 18+).

This post first appeared in Psychology Today on June 25, 2020. 

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.

Common Themes in Dreams about the Covid-19 Pandemic

Common Themes in Dreams about the Covid-19 Pandemic by Kelly BulkeleyNightmarish themes are plaguing people’s dreams during the Covid-19 crisis. The first wave of dreaming related to the coronavirus pandemic reveals how people are reacting to vivid fears and anxieties coming from all directions. Fears for oneself, for one’s family and friends, for the whole world—all threaten to consume people in their dreams as in their waking lives. A few dreams do show glimmers of hope and positivity for the future, although right now they are the rare green shoots amid a dark and frightening dreamscape for many people.

To be clear, not everyone is having these dreams. According to a new survey I recently commissioned from YouGov, only 7% of the American adult population answered yes when directly asked if they had dreamed within the last month of the Covid-19 crisis. More people ages 18-34 said they had a pandemic-related dream (9%) than people 35-54 (8%) and people 55+ (5%). This is consistent with the findings mentioned in an earlier post discussing results from the same survey: more people in the younger age group reported an increase in overall dream recall in the past month. (Field work for the online survey was conducted on April 1-3, 2020, with 2,477 American adults. The results have been weighted to approximate the US adult population.)

Perhaps that figure will grow as time goes on. As it is, 7% of all Americans 18+ amounts to around fourteen million people, a considerable number. For comparison, two surveys I conducted during 2016 asked if people had dreamed of the US presidential campaign, and the responses were 7% (May) and 8% (December). This suggests that within just a few weeks, the coronavirus pandemic has already had as much impact on people’s dreams as a long, hotly-contested presidential race.

The dream reports provided by participants provide a further window into the psychological effects of the crisis. Several patterns immediately stand out (gender and age in parentheses).

Fear of catching the disease. This includes worries about being tested, social distancing, isolation, and infecting others.

Contracting and dying alone. This thing never ending. (F, 59)

Wake up anxious about contracting the virus (F, 52)

Scared im gonna get it (F, 58)

i had a dream i got it and had to isolate myself from everyone. (F, 21)

I dreamt that someone came closer than 6 feet to me without my permission and I freaked out at them. (F, 31)

Fear of family and friends catching it. Many expressions of the frustration and sadness of being separated from loved ones.

My best friend passed it to me, I survived but he died from complications. (F, 18)

That a loved one had it and we had to see them through a window; they died and I was alone. (F, 56)

Scared, looking for family members who were lost. (F, 47)

Hearing that family has it and can’t get treatment or that they didn’t survive it. Like I can’t even wave from outside a window to their room or anything. (F, 30)

Difficulty breathing. This one of the most frightening symptoms of the virus. Difficulties in breathing are commonly found in night terrors and sleep paralysis.

That I woke up and couldn’t breathe. Felt like my lungs were filling up. (F, 36)

I was in a hospital bed, empty white room, I was coughing and stopped breathing. Knew that it wasn’t real whenever I couldn’t feel the bed I was on. Woke myself up. (M, 22)

I was dreaming I could not get enough air (M, 63)

Threats to work. The financial anxieties caused by the pandemic come through clearly in people’s dreams.

Losing my job. (M, 53)

Because of job loss I cannot afford to live. (M, 55)

I dreamed about coworkers and the virtual meetings we have had and their difficulty with caring for their kids in the meetings. I felt sad and overwhelmed. (F, 55)

Apocalypse. The end of the world is a recurrent theme in many religious traditions (e.g. the Book of Revelation in the Bible). Dreams are very sensitive to feelings that the world is fragmenting, falling apart, lapsing into chaos.

About the world crumbling. Things got tough. People suffered. Economy of some nation’s crumble…and lots more. (M, 28)

The virus spread uncontrolled, bodies piled up. Company’s closed down. People becoming desperate and violence increasing. (F, 37)

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, the Cradle of Life. (F, 55)

animals start contracting the virus and then it goes back to humans in which it turns far worse and kills 90% of the worlds population and becomes kind of an apocalypse. (M, 52)

I have dreams of the world ending, people going crazy and in all the turmoil im trying to get my older children home safely and they can’t get home. (F, 50)

I was homeless, hungry and scared. Everyone in the world was sick, it was coronavirus mutated and turned everyone into zombies. They were trying to kill me by touching me. I had no way to survive even if I avoided being touched. Woke up just before I died of hunger sickness. Been having very weird dreams lately. (M, 18)

Normal life? It seems hard to imagine that life will ever again feel calm and normal. Some dreams are peering through the darkness of the present to envision better possibilities in the future.

A normal day in the life, social distancing, no negative emotions. (F, 47)

I had a dream that we were attending a party for a friend’s baby. Instead of all of us going in person, we all had computers set up with some kind of FaceTime app. We celebrated the birthday this way online instead of in person because of the outbreak. (F, 41)

I dreamed I opened a drawer and found a bunch of masks. I was very happy. (F, 61)

Note: this post was first published in Psychology Today, April 12, 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.