The other night I had a nightmare I couldn't get into a public restroom without first taking a blood test. Anyone else out there waking up from some truly whacked-out dreams as of late? Dreams of hair turning into worms, or tidal waves of fire? There have been a lot of trends lately, but weird dreams during a pandemic is not one I was ready for.
Lauri Loewenberg is an author and certified dream analyst, and when I asked her if she'd seen an increase in weird dreams during the coronavirus outbreak, her reply was, "Lordy! Yes!"
As for why our dreams seem so vivid right now, Loewenberg points out that because many people don't have to get up for work, they may be sleeping later, and waking up whenever. She says this uninterrupted sleep is allowing many to recall their dreams better, as "an alarm is the biggest killer of dream recall there is."
As for why are our dreams so incredibly bizarre right now? Well, just chalk that up to the state of the world around us. "We tend to dream about what is on our mind the most, or about what affects us the most during the day. Our dreams are a continuation of our thoughts from the day, so when our thoughts are stressful, so are our dreams. Dreams bring our concerns to life in symbolic form."
The Mayo Clinic backs up this theory, breaking it down thusly: "Sometimes the ordinary stresses of daily life, such as a problem at home or school, trigger nightmares. A major change, such as a move or the death of a loved one, can have the same effect. Experiencing anxiety is associated with a greater risk of nightmares."
I think we can all file "global pandemic and societal lockdown" under the "major change" category, yes?
Loewenberg says that while she's hearing a lot about typical anxiety dreams right now (tornadoes, floods, earthquakes), she's also seeing dreams that are very specific to the pandemic. "For example, hands are a big focus in dreams lately. Hands falling off, hands not working, skin peeling off hands, etc."
She thinks there are two layers to these hand dreams. "Typically, hands in dreams represent our ability to handle a current issue we are dealing with. If there is something wrong with our hands in a dream it means we are not feeling able to handle the situation 'at hand.' I think a lot of us are feeling that — if this virus hits our home, are we going to be able to handle it?"
But there's an added layer to this hand dream, which Loewenberg thinks is related to how the pandemic has made us so afraid of touch. "Hands are a problem, because we are afraid to touch anything... even our faces. 'What if I transmit the virus to myself or spread it?' Our hands feel like a weapon lately. It's crazy."
Another dream theme she's seeing a lot of — that might be particularly interesting to parents — is kidnapping. "If you are the one being kidnapped, it means you are feeling like something has pulled you away from your normal daily routine, or normal peace of mind. Dreaming your child has been kidnapped or is missing typically means the child you know and love in real life seems to have changed, or your perspective of them has changed, and you are missing some element of how things used to be," she says.
While these sweaty, heart-pounding dreams can feel awful, it may help to remember that they can serve a purpose. Loewenberg says we should actually think of our bad dreams as "helpers", as they allow us to safely process negative thoughts in our own heads, and to "check in" on our own mental health.
There are scientific studies that say nightmares can also serve as useful mental prep. In a 2019 study conducted by the University of Geneva, researchers analyzed the brain response of a group of people when they were experiencing fearful dreams. And they discovered that once the individuals were awake, the areas of their brains used to control their emotions actually had a more effective response post-nightmare. So in a sense, these people's nightmares kind of "prepared them for battle", so to speak.
But if your nightmares are making you totally dread bedtime, and you'd really like to get your dreams away from hands falling off, and back on track to lighter dream fare, like Brad Pitt in a clown wig offering to take you to Applebees, well, Loewenberg highly recommends journaling. "Write out all your concerns. Get them out of your head and onto paper... or onto your laptop. In addition, write about the positive outcome you would like to see. Write about what you can actively do to make things better between you and your partner, your finances, whatever it is that troubles you."
She says once you've done that, when you turn out the lights, you should try and direct your mind toward positive thoughts — about the people you love, and possibilities for the future. "These positive thoughts will transform into better dreams. Guaranteed! But you have to be consistent. Journal each night, think positively each night. This is how you reprogram your brain. It's easier than you think."
One last tip she offers: make sharing your dreams a part of your regular family breakfast routine. "It's not only a great way to start the day — because the dreams can be freaky, and the laughs you will share are priceless — but sharing your dreams with each other is a wonderful way for the family to stay plugged in to each other."
Which is a sweet idea, I agree. Though I'm not too sure what my 7-year-old would make of my dream where I had an affair with a man who was obsessed with the Cincinnati Reds and cried honey whenever I mentioned Maroon 5.
Lauri Loewenberg, author and certified dream analyst