Threat Simulations in War Dreams

An outbreak of war and violent conflict is very likely to prompt a wave of nightmares of traumatic experiences, mournful losses, and threat simulations. This seems to be part of our internal crisis-response system when the external world descends into chaos and bloodshed, and our minds struggle to make sense of what is happening and find a way to survive the dangers.

A few days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I had a conversation with two journalists from Eastern Europe who were working on a project relating to dreams. The focus of their project was not the war, but it inevitably came up in our conversation. They shared a couple of dreams with me, and afterwards sent me another from a friend of theirs.  With their permission, I am sharing the dreams below. I find the dreams haunting, horrifying, profoundly creative, and ultimately hopeful.

P., 27 years, male, a semiotics graduate from Czechia

A few days after the start of the war in Ukraine I had this dream:

I went to visit my parents at their house in a Czech village. I wanted to talk to them that night about everything that happened after the war started, but the conversation didn’t go as well as I had hoped and it wasn’t a very warm meeting. I felt disappointed.

Then I was all alone in the room when suddenly I heard a crackling sound from outside. I turned to the window and I saw a great rising glow that blinded me completely. I knew it was a nuclear bomb explosion, and at that moment time seemed to stop for a while. I realized that these were the last moments of my life. (I even recalled some fragments of my life passing through my mind.) Then I woke up.

At first, I wanted to forget about the dream, it felt too horrifying, but then I realized that maybe it is useful in something. It allowed me to imagine an absolute ending, the worst-case scenario. The next morning, I felt different, as if I had to do everything in my life from now on to ensure, such a situation would never happen.

P., 27 years, male, a semiotics graduate from Czechia

I was walking down a street of a historic town, alone or with a friend. I saw two political marches going against each other, one with banners over their heads with microscopes drawn on them, and the other with wooden swords. There was a tension rising, and I wouldn’t expect they would attack each other, which they did, and suddenly it was chaos everywhere on the street. I thought, ok well maybe there was a chance I would expect they could start fighting, but still I wouldn’t expect it would get so harsh, given the fact that their wooden swords were clearly only replicas of the real medieval weapons. So I went on to hide in a back street, but it was noise all over the place, it was a nightmare. I woke up.

R., 27 years, female, Slovak student of filmmaking and French philology

Personally, I can only recall one fragment of a dream linked with tanks. The dream contained some banal everyday story, which I don’t remember and meanwhile, tanks were coming in the night by streets accompanied by something between fireworks and airstrikes, the night sky over the tanks was spectacularly on fire. In the dream, the tanks that kept coming felt like everyday routine.

The interesting thing is, I’ve heard from three more friends from Prague, that they also dreamed about tanks in particular. My first guess “why” is about something deeply rooted in the historical memory of local people. When someone says “when tanks arrived”, or just “the tanks” most of the time it refers to the Occupation of Czechoslovakia in the August of 1968. In general, mostly the older generations use this term(s). Also, many people at protests or in the media are making this reference nowadays- between the tanks of the Warsaw Pact troops back in 1968 in Czechoslovakia, and Russian tanks in the war with Ukraine now.

M., 27 years, female, Slovak translator and student

(I experience the worst intrusive images of violence associated with war during the day, probably also tied to the fact that I work as a translator for Memory of Nations, thereby I work with recollections of torture (by Nazis), hiding before Russian soldiers liberating Czechoslovakia, who were looting and looking for women to rape, interrogations by State Secret Services etc daily.)

“Amongst the few dreams about the war in Ukraine, I can most vividly recall the following. At that time, I had a fever, it was approximately 4 days after the war started and we were preparing some items to donate to a local charity.

Dream: I work in the local charity, we are collecting the items and sorting them for transport to the Ukrainian border. Lorries with new items keep coming, the hall is full of boxes with clothes, sleeping bags, toys, food, we are working day and night to sort the incoming material help, but it is impossible. We start to receive many calls, amongst them also video calls from Ukrainian president Mr Zelenskyj. In the style of his famous video-addresses to the world and his own citizens, each of the calls are like a short vlog, in which he encourages Ukrainians to fight, calls others to help and reprimands us for not working efficiently. With every call, the addresses become more bizarre, Zelenskyj becomes angrier and at the end, the calls purely consist of Zelenskyj absurdly scolding us for being lazy, disorganized, responsible for many deaths because we cannot even sort out material help properly.”

The Nightmares of Halloween

It’s more than a metaphor to say that Halloween is a time when our nightmares go on parade. The scary images, decorations, and costumes that take over the month of October have a direct psychological connection to the actual themes and patterns of people’s nightmares. If we look at current research on nightmares—who has them, what they’re about, what causes them—we can gain new insight into the unconscious creativity of our Halloween festivities.

Who has nightmares? Numerous studies have reached the same conclusion: children are especially prone to nightmares, and so are women. Let’s start with age. The younger you are, the more likely you experience nightmares. Ernest Hartmann’s 1984 book The Nightmare notes the frequency of nightmares in children between the ages of 3 and 6, and he suggests that bad dreams may begin even earlier than this: “It is quite likely that nightmares can occur as early as dreams can occur; that is, probably late in the first year of life.”

The age factor shows up clearly in the nightmare patterns of adults. In a 2010 survey (available in the Sleep and Dream Database) in which 2,993 American adults answered a series of questions about sleep and dreams, the following are the percentages of people in different age groups who answered “Yes” to the question, “Have you ever had a dream of being chased or attacked?”

Chasing/Attack dreams, by age:

18-24: 71%

25-34: 65%

35-54: 59%

55-69: 48%

70+:  40%

Now for gender. Women tend to have more nightmares than men do, although how much more seems to vary during the life cycle. A meta-analysis by Michael Schredl and Iris Reinhard in 2011 found a striking pattern: similar frequencies of nightmares for males and females in childhood and old age, but a significantly higher frequency of nightmares for females during adolescence and adulthood. There seems to be a “nightmare bump” during women’s lives that elevates their frequency of bad dreams consistently higher than men’s. Is this nature or nurture? Probably both. A similar pattern appears in the 2010 SDDb survey cited above, when analyzed in terms of gender.

Chasing/Attack dreams for men, by age:

18-24: 68%

25-34: 63%

35-54: 56%

55-69: 47%

70+:  37%

Chasing/Attack dreams for women, by age:

18-24: 82%

25-34: 71%

35-54: 65%

55-69: 50%

70+: 46%

No matter how we explain these differences—more on that below—the basic pattern seems clear. Nightmares are especially frequent early in life, and especially for women during adolescence and young adulthood.

What do we have nightmares about? The most common content is fear, of course. And yet, what terrifies one person may have no emotional impact on someone else, so it’s difficult to generalize about the contents of nightmares. Still, it is possible to identify a few typical elements. In the SDDb, I selected four types of dream text (“bad dream,” “nightmare,” “nightmares,” “worst nightmare”), of 25+ words in length, which yielded a set of 423 dreams. I analyzed these 423 dreams using a word-search method with a template of 40 categories of content. I then compared the nightmare results to the results for the SDDb Baselines, a collection of more than 5,000 dreams representing ordinary patterns of dream content.

The dreams in the Baselines average about 100 words per report, while the 423 nightmares have an average length of only 65 words per report. This means the Baselines will tend to have higher frequencies on all categories. That’s actually helpful for our purposes, because it makes it easy to spot the categories that are unusually high in the nightmares (Baselines included in parentheses):

Fire: 4.7% (4.3%)

Air:  6.4% (4.4%)

Falling: 10.9% (8.3%)

Death: 18.4% (8%)

Fantastic beings: 10.4% (2.1%)

Physical aggression: 42.1% (17.6%)

Religion: 7.1% (6.7%)

Weapons: 9.9% (3.9%)

These are the categories of content that seem to be over-represented in nightmares, appearing more often in bad dreams than in ordinary dreams. They are also the themes that characterize pretty much every horror movie ever made, and countless video games, and, of course, many of the costumes and decorations of Halloween.

Why do we have nightmares? Psychologists have offered several theories about this. For Sigmund Freud, a nightmare is a failure of the sleeping mind to contain the instinctual desires aroused in dreaming. Similarly, the neurocognitive theory of Ross Levin and Tore Nielsen explains nightmares as a failure of emotional regulation during sleep. Carl Jung viewed nightmares as reflections of inner conflict, and thus potential revelations of insight and guidance. Antti Revonsuo’s “threat simulation theory” focuses on chasing nightmares and their potentially beneficial role in preparing the individual for similar threats in waking life.

The simple fact that nightmares are so common seems to be evidence against a theory of dreaming as a form of play (such as I propose). How can a frightening experience be playful? Actually, a theory of dreaming as play has a good explanation for the prevalence of nightmares. Research on play in animals and humans has found that play-fighting is one of the most common forms of play among social species like ours. Although it’s not “real” fighting, play-fighting does involve real aggression, threats, and negative emotions, and it seems to have a valuable rehearsal/preparatory function similar to other forms of play. Paradoxically, play-fighting can also promote social bonding by creating a safe arena to work through interpersonal tensions.

This brings us back to the connection between nightmares and Halloween. Seen in this light, the many little rituals of Halloween are ways of playing with our nightmares, welcoming them into waking awareness, sharing them with others, and celebrating their wild creative energies. Once each year, we invite these energies into the community as a way of enlivening and strengthening our collective bonds, at a time when daylight is waning and the nights are growing colder. This is the psychological wisdom of Halloween, infusing us with a playful burst of unconscious vitality just as we’re preparing to survive through the coming darkness.

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today on October 21, 2021.

The Inevitable Spirituality of Dreaming

People make many strange and unexpected discoveries when they begin exploring their dreams. Of these discoveries, perhaps the most surprising is an uncanny encounter with images, themes, and energies that can best be described as spiritual or religious. It’s one thing to realize you have selfish desires or aggressive instincts; it’s another thing entirely to become aware of your existence as a spiritual being. Yet that is where dreams seem to have an innate tendency to lead us—straight into the deepest questions of human life, questions we find at the heart of most of the world’s religious traditions.

Consider as an example “visitation dreams,” dreams in which a loved one who has died appears as if alive again. These dreams are often extremely vivid and realistic. After awakening from such an experience, it’s almost impossible not to wonder, did I just have a real encounter with the soul or ghost of that person? And then to wonder, do I have a disembodied soul of my own? Is that what will happen when I die?

According to cross-cultural surveys of typical dreams like this, visitation dreams appear quite frequently across a wide spectrum of the population (the statistics cited below come from my Big Dreams book in 2016). For instance, in a 1958 study (Griffith et al.) of American and Japanese college students, 40% of the American males and 53% of the American females reported having had at least one visitation dream. In a 1972 study (Giroa et al.) of Israeli Arabs and Kibbutz residents, the figures were 39% for the Kibbutz males, 52% for the Kibbutz females, 70% for the Arab females, and 73% for the Arab males. In a 2001 study (Nielsen et al.) of Canadian college students, the figures were 38% for the Canadian males and 39% for the Canadian females. A 2004 study (Schredl et al.) of German college students yielded the figures of 38% for the German males and 46% for the German females.

These findings show that the experience of visitation dreams is remarkably common and widely distributed. This suggests a large number of people in every culture and community have had at least one intense personal experience that naturally invites spiritual reflection on life, death, and the existence of the soul.

Another example are “flying dreams,” which often bring incredibly strong feelings of elation, freedom, and transcendence. Like visitations, flying dreams also have a dramatic intensity and hyper-realism that makes them highly memorable after awakening, and they just as naturally prompt the conscious mind to imagine radical new possibilities and powers that overcome the limits of ordinary reality.

The cross-cultural frequency of having had at least one flying dream is similar to that of visitation dreams. For the American males it was 32%, and for the American females, 35%. For the Japanese males, 46%, and Japanese females, 46%. For the Kibbutz males, 61%, and Kibbutz females, 40%. For the Arab males, 44%, and Arab females, 43%. For the Canadian males, 58%, and Canadian females, 44%. And for the German males, 66%, and German females, 63%.

The high frequency of flying dreams might not seem like big news. But the point here is to emphasize the implications of this fact for the presence of an innately spiritual impulse and potentiality in our dreaming. These cross-cultural findings suggest that large numbers of people in societies all over the world  are innately stimulated in their dreams to recognize their own potentials for transcendence, joy, and powers beyond what our waking minds believe is possible.

Horrible nightmares might not seem to have any spiritual significance, yet the darkest of dreams can sometimes have a tremendous impact on people. Vivid nightmares certainly have as much emotional intensity and unforgettable imagery as visitation and flying dreams, and they also naturally stimulate the individual’s waking mind to ponder existential and moral questions with deep religious relevance—questions about evil, suffering, justice, violence, and death.

The cross-cultural research shows that nightmares of being chased or attacked are one of the most commonly experienced of all the “typical” dreams. Here are the figures from the studies cited above: American males, 77%, American females, 78%; Japanese males, 90%, Japanese females, 92%; Kibbutz males, 69%, Kibbutz females, 70%; Arab males, 66%, Arab females, 51%; Canadian males, 78%, Canadian females 83%; German males, 87%, German females, 89%.

Nightmares may cause distress and discomfort, but they also quite effectively force the waking mind to pay attention to real dangers, both out in the world and deep within oneself, that require greater awareness and attention. Such dreams can provide moral orientation and guidance in difficult, frightening situations. In some cases, nightmares offer experiences of radical empathy, providing insight into the feelings and sufferings of others and thus opening the individual’s mind to a wider sphere of moral care and responsibility—precisely the goal of many religious traditions.

If you track your dreams over time, or if you have therapy clients who tell you about their dreams, religiously-charged issues will almost certainly come up, sooner or later. Visitation dreams, flying dreams, nightmares, and many other types of dreams offer an open invitation to spiritual inquiry and existential self-reflection. Dreams are metaphysically insistent, but not dogmatic. They illuminate, reveal, and stimulate, but they leave the answers and practical applications to waking consciousness. And best of all in this ultra-commodified age, they are free and available to everyone! Dreams provide a neurologically hard-wired, universally accessible, yet exquisitely personalized portal into realms of awareness and insight that humans have traditionally regarded as a path towards sacred wisdom. Not everyone recognizes or cares about this aspect of their dreams. But the path is always there, opening and beckoning to us every night when we sleep.

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today 9/21/21.

Christmas Dreaming

Dreams during the holidays bring happy memories, and recurrent anxieties.

The holiday season brings many anticipated pleasures, and many reasons for worry. Our dreams about Christmas express both happiness and anxiety, eagerly looking forward to the holiday but also expressing recurrent worries about every possible thing that could go wrong.

The Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) includes 184 dream reports of 5+ words in length in which “Christmas” is mentioned at least once. Below are excerpts from a few of these dreams (identifying details have been removed). Without delving into the personal meanings of these dreams, we can still read them as fascinating commentaries from the unconscious on Christmas as a collective cultural experience.

Good times. The most positive Christmas dreams emphasize feelings of togetherness, play, and creativity.

“Dreamed about family Christmas time. Brought back happy memories of getting together with brother and sisters.”

“In my dream I was back home. It was Christmas break and my brother, his roommate and I were on a plane going home. When we got there, I went back to my high school and got to see all my friends again.”

“We were all in a hotel for Christmas. I don’t know why but it was a little sad. After a while, we walked outside and it began to snow. We all picked it up and had a snowball fight. It felt like a perfect day.”

“I dreamt that me and some other girl were singing in the living room to this Christmas music. We were trying to put “Away In a Manger” to a rap beat!”

“I was given a box with small parcels in it. I realized that this was a Christmas present. The dream became lucid and I thought, “This is a Christmas dream.” I was doing housework at the same time and noticed a bare Christmas tree in the house alongside a wall. I thought that it needed decorating before the party I would have that night.”

Misfortunes. Dreams also remind us of how very many things can go wrong during the holidays.

“My husband wants to plug in a string of Christmas lights that have a short circuit in them, or rather the switch in the wall does. The lights go on and off. I suggest he try another switch or plug.”

“I had a dream that it was Christmas Eve. My boyfriend and I arrived at my mother’s home in the afternoon and she wasn’t there, she didn’t show up till 5:30 because she was at the gym. This meant dinner wouldn’t be served till later than 8 which is when my boyfriend and I have to leave for a trip to his parents’ home. I was extremely irritated throughout the dream.”

“It was the night of my school’s Christmas pageant, and I was running late–very late. The pageant was supposed to start at 7:30, and I didn’t start dressing for it until 7:45. When I finally headed out the door, I was already a half hour late and I suddenly realized that I had no idea what I was supposed to do when I got there.”

“I was out Christmas shopping in a huge crowd and I got lost and couldn’t find my way out of the store.”

“I was buying trying a Christmas present for a family member but wherever I went it was out of stock or they didn’t have it.”

“I’m going to a Christmas party at my boss’s house, and I manage to spill my coffee, complete with generous amounts of soymilk, all over her couch.”

Nightmares. The holidays can bring out deeper fears, too.

“As a child, and a few times as an adult, I had a recurring dream at Christmas time, initially happy, involving spinning Christmas trees with colored lights. The multiple trees begin to spin faster, then unite into a single, large tree, and come closer. The dream turns darker, and the tree begins to be threatening, a whirl of pine needles and colored lights. Eventually I get sucked into the tree, and wake up in a sweat. To this day I use only white lights on my Christmas trees.”

“I was about 5 years old, and it was Christmas Eve. I was lying in bed, in the top bunk, and when I looked over at the bedroom door, there was a skeleton standing there, with a red Santa hat on, and a bag slung over its shoulder, as if full of gifts.”

Visitations. The most poignant Christmas dreams recall loved ones we have lost, and whose presence we miss most at this time of year.

 “Last week I dreamed that my brother and I were wrapping Christmas gifts. He ran out of wrapping paper and asked if I had any. I didn’t think I had any left but miraculously pulled out a roll and handed it to him. Just as I did this I woke up. My brother died many years ago. He lived in another state and would visit for a week every Christmas. Every time he came he would wrap all his gifts in my wrapping paper which irritated me.”

“I dreamed that my mom (who is deceased) and I were going out to the stores and shopping for Christmas. I didn’t want to wake up, because if I did then she would be gone again. The dream seemed really real.”

“My grandmother passed away recently. My dream was about us baking cookies. I believe the dream comes from the many memories I have of us doing that at Christmas.”

Conclusion

These dream reports were provided mostly from American adults, most of whom are Christians. Given the universality of dreaming, we can predict that people who are members of non-Christian religious traditions also have dreams about their most sacred holiday celebrations, and these dreams also range across the emotional spectrum from happy anticipations to anxious nightmares.

Note: This post first appeared in Psychology Today, 12/14/20.

 

Dreams of Wildfire

The 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.

Not All Pandemic Dreams Are Nightmares

People 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.