I was on a reality show and my co-stars couldn’t stand me. I had to vacation with an ex-friend and pay her way. I ate psychedelic mushrooms with the man who broke my heart. Social discomfort. Rejection. Elaborate, disturbing adventures with a casual acquaintance. Every single night since the pandemic began. All over the Internet, Corona-era dreaming conversations abound: detailed accounts of nightmares, articles exploring the phenomenon, a forthcoming podcast called Quarandreams. “Dreaming integrates current concerns with a predictive model of the future,” explains Dr. J. Allan Hobson, a dream researcher at Harvard Medical School. In other words, our dreams are fun-house mirrors reflecting our twin freak-outs: fear about what we’re living through and about what the future might hold.
Dream analysis appears famously in the Bible, when Joseph describes his prophetic dreams to his jealous brothers. The ancient Egyptians and Greeks communicated with the gods in their dreams. Aristotle, ahead of his time, theorized that dreams weren’t divine messages, just strange thought-like things, “activity of the faculty of sense-perception.”
In “The Interpretation of Dreams,” Freud references Aristotle’s work and builds on it, concluding that dreams are wish fulfillments: we get to visit the dead and fly and enjoy the love of those who don’t love us.
The wish-fulfillment theory has largely been dismissed as reductive, but fascination with dreaming only grows, mostly because it remains a mystery. No one really knows what dreaming is or whether or not we should assign more meaning to it than we do to waking thoughts. However, many therapeutic models use dreams as a jumping-off point for exploring whatever weighs heavy on our minds.
In quarantine, we can do a semblance of dream analysis for ourselves. We’re lucky to live in a time when teletherapy is available, but we’re also living in a time when our dreams are truly weird, often overwhelming, and even continual updates to your online therapist can’t catch them all. The next time your dreams unsettle you, try some tricks from the experts to find some peace.
How to Pay Attention to Dream Symbols
Jungian psychotherapist Maureen J. Lumley suggests paying attention to the symbolic language of your dreams. “Dreams are mainly about oneself,” she says. “They speak in the language of symbols. It’s like a foreign language. For example, a house seen symbolically might suggest your psychic house. The basement could be your unconscious, the kitchen could represent creativity or transformation, an attic might be about what’s going on in your head.”
She says that when trying to interpret a symbol, be as honest with yourself as possible. That is, if you jump to the most optimistic interpretation (that kitchen must mean I’ll marry a celebrity chef!), that might be your ego at work. But when you hit on the right symbol, you’ll have a little a-ha moment. “Is the house in a state of disrepair?” she asks, continuing the psychic house example. “Does the kitchen need remodeling? Then maybe you’re not ‘cooking up’ the right things for yourself.” She adds, “If you dream about someone who seems completely random to you, ask yourself what your association is with that person. Maybe you knew him only vaguely in high school, but he seemed depressed. So maybe that’s a clue to look at your own depression.”
Embrace Your Creative Side
“Lately, the common theme in my clients’ dreams is ‘I’m not in control’,” says Teresa Weston, a Creative Arts Therapist in Buffalo, New York. In the early quarantine days, concerned about simulating a proper environment for her clients, Weston sent them art supplies in the mail.
But basic supplies are often available around the house. For example, Weston encourages dream journals and drawings, both of which require only paper and pens. If you have a particularly disturbing dream, she recommends identifying the most upsetting scene and drawing it. “I would ask, ‘where do you feel it in your body?’ Stomach? Chest? Head?” Then ask yourself what would make the dream more tolerable to you. For example, maybe the scene wouldn’t have been so bad if your father wasn’t in it. Go back to the drawing and scribble him out, or turn his image into an image of something soothing or empowering. Taking control of your dream during your waking life will ideally diminish the unpleasant physical sensations. “Art therapy is about giving feelings that are taking up too much space in our bodies a temporary container outside our bodies.”
Try dream journaling
Gestalt therapist Luis Peniche explains that, according to the Gestalt model, “the past is only relevant because of the lessons it teaches us. If in the past we made a bad decision or had a traumatic experience, those images will likely keep appearing in our dreams. All that means is that we don’t yet have peace and closure.”
In session, Peniche asks his clients to narrate their dreams in first person. “The ‘I’ is important because the dreamer is the author and director of the dream,” he explains. “Every part of the dream comes from you, the dreamer. So in therapy, you can rearrange the elements, integrate the conflicts, find the meaning, and ultimately narrate the dream in a new, helpful way.” If you’re on your own, Peniche recommends writing the dream down, without thinking, the moment you wake up. Then leave it and go about your day. Later, write it again, in first person this time. Do any feelings or symbols jump out? Do they feel relevant to you? Can you make sense of them?
Journaling about the dream might help you resolve some difficult feelings or at least gain self-awareness. “The objective of dream analysis is to become aware of how the dream is relevant, here and now,” Peniche clarifies. “The goal of every Gestalt process is integrating the personality. We want to make you aware of what you’re experiencing.”
Dreams During the Coronavirus Pandemic
All of our weird dreams may or may not relate directly to the global pandemic. Psychiatrist, Brown University professor, and author of Listening to Prozac and Ordinarily Well, Peter D. Kramer, says, “Of course, everything is heightened. People who were already concerned with germs and cleanliness are thinking even more about germs and cleanliness. People who have suffered losses are facing the threat of more loss. This thing is pretty comprehensive and hard to escape.” But he reminds us that correlation does not imply causation. That is, there are many factors besides virus anxiety that could be impacting our dreams.
Kramer suggests taking stock of recent changes to your lifestyle. For example, are you drinking more alcohol since quarantine began? Are you drinking alcohol at a different time of day than you normally would? Have you increased your meds? Are you quarantined in a house with kids you don’t usually live with, like me, who wake you up at odd hours? If you can adjust factors that might contribute to nightmares or other sleep disturbances, start there. There might be nothing more than one glass of wine too many standing between you and a peaceful night’s sleep.