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Dreaming and Making Meaning During Covid-19

Gillian Berkowitz - Educational Psychologist


He was running an essential errand. Inside the building, people were jostling, pushing — no-one was 1.5m away, no-one was social distancing. He couldn’t get away, and he couldn’t get out. It was terrifying.

Then he woke up.

The man who related this nightmare is not the only one having disturbing dreams. I have them too, only mine tend to be focused on insecurity, separation and abandonment:

“My partner and I are visiting a new friend we recently met on holiday. She is being treated for cancer in a large state hospital and whilst we chat to her, I slip off my sandals. And leave them under the chair. My partner leaves the room to wait outside whilst I say my goodbyes. When I leave the ward, my partner has disappeared and I decide to go to the ground floor of the hospital in the hope of meeting up with him. I avoid getting into the first lift which already has a family of four in it (too many people in a confined space).

When I get out of the lift, I find myself on a subterranean level of the hospital, where everything looks totally unfamiliar. I have no landmarks to guide me, and spend what seems like an endless time, wandering around trying to find my way back, without my shoes. The ground I am traversing is frightening and unsteady as it undulates with steep upward slopes and precipitous downward slopes (like a roller coaster).

When I wake, the details fade, but the emotion remains: a feeling of disorientation and anxiety with great fear that everything is out of control and I am irrevocably separated from my loved ones.

You may also have found your dreams a bit unusual lately. And it’s not only nightmares. During a stressful time, even regular dreams can become unusually vivid. My partner keeps dreaming of his favourite fishing river, the place he misses most in this locked-down time.

Researchers have long been befuddled and fascinated by dreams. What neurological purpose do they serve, if any? And how does stress affect our dreams?

One theory is that dreams are a way for our brains to make sense of the day’s events, purge short-term memories and consolidate useful information. High-quality sleep helps us solve problems and make better judgments, and dreams may assist that process by synthesising information and clearing away mental clutter.

Dreaming is a unique state that perhaps allows us to “reprocess upsetting memories in a safer, calmer environment”, writes Matthew Walker, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of California at Berkeley and the director of the Centre for Human Sleep Science. When we wake up, we may be less emotionally reactive, and perhaps some difficult feelings have lost their sting.

Dreams are also a way to understand our deepest conflicts, fears and anxieties. Sigmund Freud wrote that “the analysis of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind”. He also wrote that “the aim of the dream is the fulfilment of repressed unconscious wishes through mental representations”.

Other writers in the psychoanalytic tradition have observed that “the world of our dreams symbolises and uncovers our unconscious phantasies, the basic matrix of our personality”.

Melanie Klein expanded on the important role of “symbol formation in the development of the ego saying that symbol formation is at the basis of sublimation”. In other words we can use symbols whether in dreams, paintings, play or other creative activities to articulate impulses and conflicts in ways which do not overstep the norms of society (super-ego). We use symbolic function creatively and therapeutically to understand and help address and manage our conflicts.

Hanna Segal wrote: “The basic wish which is fulfilled by the dream is the wish of the ego to resolve conflict”.

In my own case, dreams of separation and abandonment resonate with early baby experiences of prolonged hospitalisation and separation from important attachment figures. Our dreams therefore tend to confront us with our “core issues” indicating work that we still need to do.

What has great meaning in dreams is often not the specific details or symbols, but rather the meaning and associations they bring up for each individual. “The meaning is more about the dreamer than the dream”.

Another idea is that dreams somehow help with problem-solving. Some studies conducted in sleep centres found that people who were wakened while dreaming were more creative puzzle-solvers than those wakened from other sleep cycles and were more likely to say the solution instantly appeared to them. Anyone who has woken to find a previously hard-to-grasp answer staring them in the face knows what that feels like. It’s one reason we encourage friends facing a tough decision to “sleep on it”.

Dreaming about the precise problem you are trying to solve may be especially helpful. A study of people who dreamed about solving a maze they had been working on, showed they became 10 times better at it than those who didn’t dream about it.

Perhaps this problem-solving function explains in part why so many of us have anxiety dreams. Swedish neuroscientist Antti Revonsuo thinks stress dreams may serve to keep us alert to potential future dangers; if we dream about being trapped in a crowded space amid a global pandemic, perhaps our brain is essentially giving us a chance to rehearse.

Other research seems to bear this out: A study of students studying for the Sorbonne exam, for example, found that those who had anxiety dreams the night before the test performed significantly better on it — by an average of half a point on a seven-point scale.

But even if anxious dreams may serve a purpose, they’re no fun to have. And if they’re disrupting our sleep, they may make us more anxious: a sleepless night can trigger a 30% rise in anxiety, according to 2019 study. We might think we’re too edgy to sleep, in other words, but it actually it could be the lack of good sleep that’s making us edgy.

There are steps you can take to get more restful sleep — for one, just having a consistent sleep schedule for you and your children. Many sleep experts suggest blocking off the last hour of the day to wind down; use this time to listen to calming music or read an escapist novel rather than catch up on the latest nightmarish news. Sleep hygiene experts advise that we should not be using screens (TV or cellphones) for at least a half an hour before going to sleep. Also, important to charge our phones and laptops as far away from where we are sleeping as possible.

Both caffeine and alcohol can interfere with sleep, so keep them in check. Even if you’re working from home, try as much as you can to keep work out of the bedroom.

And remember, if your dreams seem strange and even dark, it’s the mind’s way of revealing important aspects of our internal world and coping with our anxieties and conflicts.

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