‘Pandemic dreams’: A wake-up Call?

Melinda Powell

Melinda Powell

UKCP psychotherapist Melinda Powell is the author of The Hidden Lives of Dreams: What They Can Tell Us and How They Can Change Our World, Bonnier Books UK, 2020 and Co-founder of the Dream Research Institute, London.

You are being driven in a cab with a loved one to an unknown destination. The driver is coughing heavily. Alarmed, you realise that microscopic droplets of Covid-19 surround you. ‘How could the driver be so careless of other people’s lives?’ you ask yourself. Then you awake, relieved it was a dream, but upset by the all-too-real associations.

Sounds familiar? The global pandemic and ensuing lockdown have given us a shared awareness of our humanity, both in our waking and dream lives, as numerous pandemic dreams posted on-line testify. Vivid Covid-19 themes have seemingly ‘infected’ our dreams. But are such dreams merely symptomatic, or can they also offer us a way forward for addressing what ails us, individually and collectively?

Sleep science tells us increased dream recall can result from changing sleep patterns. When anxious and restless, we are more likely to wake up during or following a dream. Alternatively, those of us freed from usual routines may sleep longer, allowing for more cycles of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, in which story-like dreaming occurs.

This matters because neurological studies suggest that REM dreaming provides for neural networks to reconstruct and process emotional events and themes, as well as to rehearse newly learned behaviours. Sleep scientist Matthew Walker has proposed that dreams comprise a ‘Biological Theatre’ for ‘overnight therapy,’ arguing that lower levels of the fight/flight hormone noradrenaline during REM dreaming dampen down our emotional reactivity, thereby allowing us to work through painful emotions while asleep.

Such nocturnal therapy can be compared with psychotherapy, in which we can safely recall and re-engage with deeply emotional memories and otherwise unconscious behavioural patterns. Therapeutic dreamwork encourages reflective awareness that imparts a more nuanced perspective on life. Drawing on language of the theatre, Carl Jung remarked that ‘if the observer [dreamer] understands that his own drama is being performed on this inner stage, he cannot be indifferent to the plot and its denouement.’ Thus, a dream becomes an opportunity to develop our understanding of ourselves and others.

The opening dream reported here speaks not only to the dreamer’s personal psychology, but also invites each of us to reflect on what it is like to feel – or to have felt – at the mercy of reckless behaviour beyond our control and how this may affect us. The dream also highlights how, when fearful, we can easily lose our capacity for empathy (in this instance, for the cab driver), an invitation to show more compassion in future. More broadly, the dream asks us to consider collectively as a species how, rather than being driven by our fears, we can learn to cherish life.

Acknowledging the feelings aroused by pandemic dreams, and working with them therapeutically, has the power to harness the emotional energy that can help bring healing to a world sorely in need of dreams.

The Dream Research Institute is currently conducting a survey to better understand ‘Pandemic Dreams’, click here to take part.

  • Seeking therapy

Find a therapist near you