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May 06, 2020

The COVID-19 crisis is giving people vivid dreams – but what do they mean?

A psychoanalyst explains how to interpret your coronavirus nightmares

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COVID Dreaming Source/Image licensed from Ingram Image

Many people are having unusually vivid and strange dreams during the COVID-19 crisis. Some of that may be the result of new sleep patterns, experts say. But it underlying fears also play a factor.

My dreams have been pretty wild lately. From lions and bears living in my basement to a surprise visit from a "Real Housewives of New York City" reality star with COVID-19-like symptoms, my anxieties about the coronavirus have been bubbling up from my unconscious.

This is quite normal, psychologists say. Many people are experiencing really vivid and unusual dreams during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is partly the effect of the new sleep patterns people have adopted while working from home. Many of us are sleeping later than usual because the commute to the couch is a lot shorter than the drive to the office. This means more REM sleep – the stage when dreams occur.

Rapid eye movement, the fourth and final stage of sleep, usually beings about 90 minutes after you fall asleep. We generally have several REM periods during the night, but they don't come evenly. The longest REM periods occur as the morning arrives

People generally wake up at the end of each cycle. If you fall back asleep within 5 minutes, you probably won't remember the dream. But if you remain awake for a longer period, your brain can encode the dream into your memory. 

Licensed psychologist Valerie Braunstein, founder of Philly Psychology, said that the extra dreaming could be a reflection of the psychological stress we are under during the stay-at-home orders. We have been feeling a lot of emotions, whether it's the fear of falling ill, the stress of being without work or the frustrations of being cooped up inside.

Claudia Luiz, a clinical psychoanalyst in Westchester County, New York, agreed. 

“Not only are people having more dreams, which are the royal road to the unconscious, but it’s also easier to examine deep feelings of longing and fear since they are so much a part of the collective consciousness now," Luiz said. "Couple that with a heavy dose of isolation forced by quarantine, and you could not possibly set a more perfect stage for some good psychoanalysis."

Psychoanalysts use dream interpretation to help people bring to light their repressed fears and conflicts. 

"Right now reality is mirroring our darker thoughts," Luiz said. "The unconscious is a dark place where we stash away the things we don't want to think about. Everyone is walking around a little bit wonky. People are more emotional, prone to tears, easier to arouse." 


So what are we all dreaming about? 

I Dream of COVID, a website where people can submit their dreams, provides some insight. People have dreamed about masks becoming a permanent part of their faces. Others have found themselves walking around in individual bubbles or had dreams where the coronavirus kills everyone in the country. 

The most common themes are wish fulfillment dreams or nightmares in which your fears come out. One common wish-fulfillment dream is finding a cure for COVID-19. But some people are having nightmares in which they or a loved one gets sick and dies.

Metaphors in our dreams are also common, Braunstein said. A lot of dreamers are reporting being attacked by different types of bugs or wild animals. Or they find themselves stuck in a storm. All of them can be metaphors for the virus.

Front-line workers might relive the trauma they are facing in their dreams. For instance, a doctor may dream about having to choose which patient gets a ventilator.

If you are having a recurring nightmare, experts suggest imagining a more positive ending. Then envision that ending before going to bed. That's a technique called dream incubation – essentially suggesting what to dream as you drift to sleep. 


Now is a great time to try to analyze your dreams, Luiz and Braunstein said. 

In conducting dream analysis, you apply the elements of the dream to what is happening in your own life, including your struggles. For instance, I know the reality star appearing in my house with COVID-19-like symptoms is a reflection of my anxiety about bringing the coronavirus home to my kids. 

According to Braunstein, our dreams can help us work through our real-life problems. Analyzing our dreams can help us get in better touch with our feelings. And when we share them with others, it allows us to get the support we need, she added.

Luiz warned that our unconscious can be a primitive place, so it can be a little scary to delve into it. Expect to feel a little chaotic and confused at first, she said.

"The more you know your unconscious, the more you own it and it doesn't own you," Luiz said. "If we don't deal with it, we defend against it, putting us at war with ourselves. This is called intrapsychic conflict, and it keeps us blind to ourselves. This is a chance to reconnect with parts of yourself that are hidden."

How To Get The Most Out of Dream Analysis

The first step to analyzing your dreams is to remember them. Write them down as soon as you wake up. Some people find it helpful to create a dream diary. Braunstein also suggested telling yourself you will remember your dreams before going to bed.

Next, try to identify the feelings in your dreams. If you can feel the emotions of the other people in your dream, you may be projecting your emotions on them, Luiz said. So, pay attention.

Once you have identified the feelings in your dreams, free associate to them. Let your mind wander and see where it lands. Then ask yourself what these feelings tell you about your life, including your struggles.

We all repress certain emotions or memories. But no matter how hard you deny them, they are still there. Like ghosts they can haunt us, Luiz said.

Sometimes we can apply universal meaning to our dreams. For instance, how many of us have dreamed we were naked at school or work? For most of us, nakedness in a public place could suggest feelings of shame or vulnerability. Ultimately though, the meaning of our dreams is personal and individual.

Can't crack the meaning of a dream? Don't worry about it, Luiz said. Not all dreams can be broken down. It is OK to just let it fade back into the darkness.

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