Dreams help us process the emotions attached to our experiences – good or bad.
January 2020 – Pre-Pandemic Dream
I’m walking through a large room, so large it might have been a ballroom at some point. Dark mahogany floors are flanked on either side by walls covered in large paintings, featuring beautiful Dali-esque images of long-legged fairies. I feel as though I’ve been here before and yet, I don’t think I ever have. As I walk through large, ornate rooms, one after the other, I’m filled with the same sense of wonder I felt when I first walked through the Vatican’s chambers, many years ago. I know this place. Every artifact, secret passage, faux wall is open to me. I gently open a closet door and walk through what seems like a large dressing room filled with frocks, hats and wigs and emerge in a beautiful theatre with ornately decorated golden frescos and red velvet-covered seats. I chose one, about halfway up, on the first balcony, and sit with my eyes closed. Music swells and in my mind’s eye I see my grandmother playing the mahogany grand piano on stage. Debussy’s Claire de Lune resonates in the theatre filling my heart with memories of my childhood. The song is melancholic, but also soaring and hopeful. I look again. My mother is now the one playing. She’s no longer the strikingly beautiful, young woman who held my hand many years ago as I walked to school, she’s older, softer and I long for her to hold my hand again. I smile, secure in the knowledge that we will be together again, soon.
I wake gently, and try to commit the dream’s warm, comforting feelings to memory, before it fades away.
January 2021 – 1 year later – 10 Months Into The Global Pandemic
I run from one courtyard to the next, through Ottawa’s Byward Market, relying on my memory for the shortcuts I took so often when I was a sullen teenager. I often hid here on Sunday mornings, taking black and white photos of empty courtyards with barren trees when I was supposed to be in church repenting or some such thing. The cold January wind stings my face. They’re getting closer.
I am me, now. A fifty-something-year-old woman running close to buildings, trying to go unnoticed as I slip through a crack in one of the fences. I smirk. I may not be 15 anymore, but I can still squeeze my body through that skinny opening. I look around. My face no longer has the freshness of youth, and is now more angular, etched with years of lack of sleep and worry. I’m in the secret, private garden I frequented so often during my adolescence. Tree branches, covered in a thin layer of ice, sparkle in the sunshine like crystal. It’s enchanting. But dangerous. I can’t stay. My hands and feet are numb. I have to get inside before the door disappears. If I don’t make it in on time, they will get me or I’ll lose a few digits to the cold. Images of my father’s beloved Tristan Jones artic adventures flash before my eyes. I shudder.
I try the handle and it clicks open softly. A wave of relief washes over me as I walk into a large foyer and lock the door behind me. On either side, a curved stairwell leads to a second-floor mezzanine. I gingerly start my ascent acutely aware that any little sound could give me away as I move forward. If I can get to the second floor, I’ll have a chance at escaping. Despite my calculated, slow steps, my knees and ankles betray me and pop and crack at every stride. Dammit. The floor boards groan. “Come out, come out, wherever you are,” a raspy, mocking voice, asks. I abandon any pretence at being stealthy, run to the top of the stairs and jump into the dumb waiter. It’s been over 30 years since I’ve tried such antics. I hope the tiny elevator can still hold my weight. I peer through the crack of the cupboard door. The man is barefoot on the landing, knife in hand. I hold my breath and try to make myself smaller. Slowly, I lower my weight praying the old contraption holds, as the timeworn, frayed rope burns my hands.
After a few excruciating minutes, the dumbwaiter hits the ground with a thud and I scurry out into the darkness. I strain my eyes as they adjust to the obscurity. Another theatre. This one long ago abandoned. Mannequins wearing dusty frocks and matted wigs stare at me, their gaze empty. Large boxes and set pieces fill the space pell-mell, long forgotten. A rat scuttles by and I shudder. The floor beneath me shifts and I realize there are large gaps between the wooden slats. I walk across a plank carefully, eager to get to the other side of the room. The sound of Chopin’s Funeral March resonates, gradually getting louder. What a freaking cliché. I don’t want to be here anymore. I slip and one of my legs goes through the floor. Someone laughs. It’s the man. I’d be terrified if I weren’t so angry. I yank my leg out and scurry away. Pain radiates from my ankle to my thigh but I dare not look at it for fear the sight of blood, or worse, will slow me down.
I wake with a start, dazed and with a feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach. I look around for the rat for a moment before I realize none of it was real.
Dreams and The Global Pandemic
Both of those dreams bear similarities. They’re explorations of a space and time and expressions of my state of mind. While my pre-pandemic dreams might have been a little wistful they ultimately left me feeling hopeful. Since our lives were irreversibly upended by the Coronavirus, my dreams and those of millions of other people, have undoubtedly taken a much darker turn and I often awaken feeling a little worse for wear. But before we explore the impact of the global pandemic on our dreams, and how said dreams could actually be helping us deal with everything, let’s get back to basics.
What Are Dreams?
Humans start dreaming at around seven months in utero, our muscles and eye movements showing the tell-tale signs of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and non-REM sleep. And by the time we’re old enough to worry about whether there are monsters under the bed, we start remembering our dreams.
According to the Sleep Foundation, dreams are images, thoughts, or feelings that occur during sleep. They’re seen from the dreamer’s point-of-view, they are, for the most part, involuntary (I’ll address voluntary or lucid dreaming in another post), and although their content can seem illogical or completely nonsensical, they’re usually filled with people or places the dreamer knows and has strong feelings about.
You can dream in color or in black and white and people with blindness or visual impairments are more likely to have dreams involving sounds, tastes or smells. Now if I could just figure out a way to make my dreams taste like crème brûlée and smell like shortbread cookies, I’d be in heaven. Heck I’d settle for coffee and chocolate. But, for the time being, if there are smells accompanying my dreams, I don’t recall them.
Most dreams happen during the REM stage of sleep but they canhappen at any point while we sleep. And while the average adult dreams for two hours a night, it’s likely they’ll only remember only the dreams they had during REM sleep because those tend to be more intense, fantastical or bizarre.
In contrast, dreams you have during non-REM sleep tend to be “more coherent and involve thoughts or memories grounded to a specific time and place” but you’re less likely to remember them.
What Dreams Do
Humans have been fascinated by dreams for centuries. Early civilizations thought they were messages from the gods. In fact, according to Scientific American, the Greeks and Romans were convinced that dreams had certain prophetic powers. And dreams continued to be thought of as having predictive properties throughout the ages. It wasn’t until the 19thcentury, that psychologist Sigmund Freud and his disciple, Carl Yung, theorized that dreams are not predictive but rather of psychological importance and that society as a whole began to perceive dreaming as a necessary part of our sleep cycle.
To this day, expressions from all over suggest that dreams help us tap into some kind of higher consciousness or at the very least, help us make sound decisions. And so whether you say “La nuit porte conseil,” (The night brings good counsel), ”Sleep on it,” or “Consúltelo con la almohada,” (consult with your pillow) the implication is that sleeping and dreaming will help you work through your day, solve problems, take stock and make the right decision.
Why We Dream
Whether you remember your dreams or not, the stage of sleep in which your brain dreams, is the time when it processes the stresses of the day and helps you recharge, clean house, as it were, so you’re ready to start anew when you wake up.
According to Psychology Today, “many researchers now believe that dreaming mediates memory consolidation and mood regulation, a process a little like overnight therapy.”
Overnight therapy. I like the sound of that. Although I think my internal therapist has been sleeping on the job. Ha! They also surmise that people who are sleep deprived tend to be dream deprived, spending less time dreaming and are therefore less able to remember dreams.
Patrick McNamara, an associate professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine who is an expert in dreams agrees with that theory to a point. “We normally use REM sleep and dreams to handle intense emotions, particularly negative emotions,” he tells National Geographic. “Obviously, this pandemic is producing a lot of stress and anxiety.” He and his peers, however, do NOT think sleep deprived people dream less. Au contraire. Insomniacs spend more time falling in and out of sleep, especially those suffering from middle-of-the-night insomnia or parasomnia (waking frequently), and therefore spend more time in REM sleep – which is the period in which we dream the most.
What If I Don’t Dream?
Perhaps you, and people you know, are convinced they never dream. Rest assured. They do and so do you. You just don’t remember your dreams. According to the International Association for the Study of Dreams, “Nearly everything that happens during sleep— including dreams, the thoughts which occur throughout the night and memories of brief awakenings—is forgotten by morning.” There is something about sleep that makes dreams difficult to remember unless they’re written down. Sometimes the memory of a dream will be triggered by a smell or an event in the next day or two, which leads dream experts to believe dreams are not forgotten, just hard to retrieve.
Sleep and dreams can also be heavily influenced by the ingestion of some foods, medications and drugs. I always have bizarre and colorful dreams after I eat curry. Eating cheese or other dairy products just before bedtime is widely believed to induce better dreaming. On the other hand, certain drugs like Donepezil, a medication used to treat dementia in Alzheimer’s patients, increases nightmares when it’s taken before bed.
Whether your Covid-19-influenced dreams are the straight up global pandemic, zombie apocalypse type, or the more subtle, but no less disturbing, dreams of helplessness, persecution and/or disaster, the dreams you’ve been having since the beginning of the pandemic have been your psyche’s way of making sense of the fear, dread or grief you’ve experienced.
And, if it feels like you’ve been dreaming more since the World Health Organization declared the Covid-19 virus a global pandemic, that’s probably because you have. According to an ongoing study the Lyon Neuroscience Research Center in France started last March, the coronavirus pandemic has caused a 35% increase in dream recall among participants, with 15% of those dreams being more negative than usual.
How Dreams Help You Cope
How could dreaming you’re falling, or that you’re being hunted, as I did, help you cope with the coming day? It seems completely ridiculous that waking up with an elevated heart rate and fear in the pit of your stomach is therapeutic. And yet, it is.
A 2011 study published by Matthew Walker and colleagues at the Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab at UC Berkeley, found that a reduction in REM sleep (less dreaming) influences our ability to understand complex emotions in daily life – an essential feature of human social functioning.
Dreams help us process emotions by constructing memories of them. What we see and experience in our dreams might not necessarily be real, but the emotions attached to these experiences are. Basically, our dreams help us process the emotions generated by our experiences by creating memories of then. This way, the emotions themselves are no longer active, just memories.
This dreaming-to-process-emotions mechanism is super important because when we don’t process our emotions, especially negative ones, we become more and more worried and anxious. In fact, severe REM sleep-deprivation is increasingly linked to the development of mental disorders. REM sleep has a critical role in facilitating the brain’s ability to change and adapt.
Remembering Your Dreams
According to the Lucid Dream Society, we all dream every night and have about one dream period every 90 minutes. The first dream of the night is approximately 10 minutes long and since the REM stage gets longer as we sleep, dreams get longer and longer and can get as long as 45 minutes to an hour long, after 8 hours of sleep. I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember the last time I got 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep, never mind anything longer than that. But, even if you, like me, are consistently sleep-deprived, as long as you sleep longer than an hour and a half at a time, you will dream.
Whether you, like Freud and Yung, believe your dreams are a window into your subconscious and reveal your secret desires and feelings or that they allow you to access inspiration and wisdom, remembering your dreams can “help you become a more assertive, confident and stronger person. By remembering your dreams, you are expressing and confronting your feelings.”
Top 5 Ways to Remember Your Dreams
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Whether you’re simply interested in your mind’s coping mechanisms or in the potential predictive power of dreams, here are the top five ways to remember your dreams:
1. Dream Journal
Keep a dream journal next to your bed. Keep it open with a pen at the ready. The key is to jot down a few words, impressions and feelings to commit the dream to memory as soon as you wake up. This journal comes with ready-made prompts so you can just fill-in the blanks.
2. Gentle Alarm
Keep your alarm clock close to your bed and use a gentle ring or better yet use a sunrise alarm. The idea here is to not to be jolted out of sleep but to wake up gently so you can stay in that state between sleep and wakefulness long enough to commit your dreams to memory.
3. Sticky Notes
Put reminders your bedside lamp, the bathroom mirror and your coffee maker (or whatever objects are regulars during your morning routine) that say, “What did you dream?”
4. Dream Anchor (or Lucid Anchor)
Anchoring comes from the branch of psychology called Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP.) Before you go to sleep, pick an object you can see from your bed. Mine is a Himalayan Salt Lamp. Look at your anchor when you go to sleep at night, wake up in the middle of the night and in the morning. When you do say, “I will remember my dreams.” I know this sounds woo-woo, but it works. The object works as a trigger and reminds you to focus on your dreams.
5. Notice Patterns
Have a particularly vivid dream last night? Wake up feeling refreshed or like you got run over by a truck? Keep track of the time you go to bed, what you eat, how many hours you sleep, the room temperature and even the position in which you sleep. It sounds like a lot of work, but with a sleep journal, it only takes a few minutes to record and you’ll soon notice which foods, positions and bedtimes are the most conducive to dreaming.
Dreams Are Self-Therapy
I don’t think my dreams have any predictive power – at least, I bloody well hope not! – but I was pleased to find through my research that my anxiety-fueled nocturnal adventures are not just another manifestation of my neuroses. The wild, often-times nonsensical dreams are rather a sign that my mind is actively working at converting whatever feelings of helplessness, angst or joy I’ve experienced to memories so I can move on and tackle today’s, tomorrow’s and next week’s challenges and undertakings head on.
Have you been dreaming more since the beginning of the global pandemic? How well do you remember these dreams? Do you feel your dreams help you tackle your feelings? Drop me a line. I’d love to know.