Are you finding that you’re dreaming vivid, intense dreams during lockdown? We spoke to psychologist and friend of the Jung family (yes THAT Jung family) Steven T Richards to find out what it’s all about.
In an informal study carried out by Silver Magazine, over 85% of respondents said they had been experiencing vivid, disturbing dreams since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and particularly since we’ve been in ‘lockdown’.
So if you’re one of those, don’t worry – you’re definitely not alone. And it’s important to note that you need them.
“Dreams are essential for the health of our mind and our body. We all dream, but not everyone can easily recall them,” explains Steven.
“Studies have shown that if people are deprived of dreaming sleep for a few days, they very quickly start to hallucinate and show psychotic symptoms.”
So what are people dreaming about?
We asked readers to tell us a bit about their dreams, and there’s some common threads through many of them, such as fighting wars, escaping situations, having sex with inappropriate people, and in many cases, dreaming about people who have long since died.
Hunting and foraging for food and water were the main reasons for venturing out. Being in lockdown subconsciously activates these ancient instincts
Rose Collis says, “The other night, I dreamed I was involved in a sort of all-female ‘Great Escape’ escape from the Nazis – except there was a lot more killing… I saw other women having their heads shot to smithereens. The sense of the danger I was in was so palpable – real life and death stuff.”
Roman Hunter is another one fighting the fight. “Mine have become action packed and lots of dead relatives helping out, very odd.”
Steven says that dreaming during lockdown throws our minds back into cave-dwelling days, and not just at night.
“Being forced to stay at home throws our minds back to our remote ancestors, who lived in caves for safety from predators and protection against a hostile natural environment.
“Hunting and foraging for food and water were the main reasons for venturing out. Being in lockdown subconsciously activates these ancient instincts, making shopping for essentials and getting exercise potentially very stressful.”
Survival of the fittest
“Our competitive drive will also mean that as the restrictions continue, our basic instincts will sharpen. As time passes, some may even feel that the police are like ‘predators’ to be avoided, whilst our survival instincts drive us to get better at securing resources. The police themselves may even find that a predatory instinct kicks in, as they patrol their beat seeking out people breaking the rules.
“Our brains and minds will anticipate these instinctive pressures, and prepare us for adapting to the situation by increasing the intensity and quality of our dreams.”
So our dreams are a way of limbering up our survival instincts, and important for our ability to survive. It’s a very primal activity, but the mad dreams are actually keeping us sane?
“Yes, because it’s a natural and healthy reaction to a very stressful and novel situation. Your mind and body are opposite sides of the same coin; what affects one affects the other. To keep in healthy balance, your mind and body need to communicate. We experience this communication in our dreams. Underneath the images and symbols, our brains are adapting at a neurological level to the new challenges presented by COVID-19.”
Can we diagnose our own mental health using our dream material?
“Definitely. But be careful! All of our personal complexes populate our dreams, appearing like people we may know in outer life. Sometimes they are exactly what they appear to be. But just as often they represent parts of ourselves that we’ve either ‘projected’ onto people we know, or ‘introjected’ by unconsciously borrowing their image to represent a part of ourselves.
“Knowing how to approach our dreams is very important. Accept it as normal, but look closely at the content of your dreams and learn to take them as natural facts written in a symbolic language. If you respect your dreams, your psyche will respect ‘you’. Keep focused on the outer world, but acknowledge your rich, inherited inner life.”
Nightmares are part of the normal turn-over in the mind and brain that is necessary for health
The majority of people we talked to reported having vivid, unsettling dreams during lockdown, or nightmares. They’re feeling impending doom, fighting battles, and waking up exhausted. Is there any way to manage this, or avoid having such intense dreaming experiences?
“This depends on the cause. Nightmares are part of the normal turn-over in the mind and brain that is necessary for health. Nightmares can be caused by illness or disease; indeed, by anything that affects the proper functioning of the brain.
“Nightmares caused by trauma in the past or stress occurring in the present can, if they are persistent, be dealt with through the help of a suitably trained and experienced therapist. Many people take the challenge of embarking on their own inner work and enter on a journey of self-discovery by self-analysing their dreams and nightmares.”
When will it end?
So sometimes you need to shine the light on something to make the darkness disappear. How about once lockdown is lifted and life gets back to some kind of normality – will this crazy dreaming stop then?
“Yes, but there will be a period of readjustment, and your psyche and your brain will need to re-calibrate to the change. It’ll be quite normal for this to take some time, or even in a very few cases, persist over a longer period.
“Meanwhile, sleep is absolutely essential for health, and dreams are a part of this. Get the sleep you need for physical and mental health. And enjoy the rich dream narratives your psyche produces as the background to your conscious mental life.”
LET’S LOOK AT SOME OF THOSE THEMES IN DETAIL
A number of themes came up regularly. We asked Steve to expand on some of these.
Inappropriate sex with people that wouldn’t be at all acceptable in real life
“This is quite normal and will happen to most people in their dreams far more often that they remember. Sex is grounded in our instincts, and as a drive is always present, even if we’re happy and content in a fulfilling relationship.
“If we’re in a relationship, then the appearance of dreams like this may just be the instinct asserting itself as a subconscious release of tension, rather like a conscious fantasy when we are awake. It could also be more symbolic, and not represent sexuality at all, but hint at a more subtle movement in our subconscious.
“We all have a bandwidth of potential that can be expressed sexually. So it’s best not to be concerned about the appearance in a dream of options or choices we wouldn’t make in our outer lives.”
Being with people who have died. Lots of people seeing lost ones in their dreams
“The most common cause of dreaming of people who have died is an updating of the relationship we had with them when they were alive.
“When we lose someone, our memories of them still live in our subconscious. The memories spontaneously sort and re-sort themselves according to how we experienced them. And dreaming about them demonstrates the need we may have to still share our lives with them.
“Sometimes, people fear that such dreams mean that they are soon going to die and meet them again. Overwhelmingly, this is almost never the case. Rather, it’s the ‘alive’ presence of the person we have lost, in our memory, as our psyche processes that loss, and evaluates the meaning of our relationship to them.
“Dreams of lost loved ones can be of great comfort. Sometimes, of course, the person we dream of may have responsible for some terrible and unresolved trauma in our life. In these circumstances, the dream is hinting at the need to work this through. You should consider professional help if this is you.”
And finally sleep paralysis. Seeing quite a few people suffering with this, unusually high levels of experience
“Sleep paralysis is a well-documented phenomenon characterised by ‘waking up’ in a sleeping body, being unable to move or speak. Feelings of panic are common, and wakefulness often comes suddenly through a sharp in-breath.
“Apart from a genetic predisposition, it’s likely to be caused by a lack of synchronisation in the reticular activating system (RAS) of the brain; an extensive system of interconnected structures that range from the brainstem up through the midbrain.
“The RAS is responsible for regulating how awake we are, and also the transitions between the various stages of sleep. In effect, the sufferer wakes up in their still-sleeping body. Sometimes, this is accompanied by other phenomena such as ‘hypnogogia’ which can involve dream-like hallucinations, and sleep-talking.
“Although distressing, it’s usually not of any medical concern. And most people will likely experience it at some time in their lives. Fatigue and exhaustion can certainly cause it in people who have never experienced it before.”
Huge thanks for this insight to Steven T Richards FIPSA FNCP, Depth Psychologist, Psychotherapist and Respiratory Psychophysiologist.
You can find Steve and his wife Pauline, who works in the same field, on the Jung to Live By Youtube channel, offering depth psychological resources.