Pandemic Dreams — Horrors and Healers

By Valerie Andrews

The Plague Doctor, Computer generated dream image, courtesy of Deirdre Barrett

The coronavirus has been a kind of waking dream, calling up our worst fears and anxieties.  Yet something curious is also happening when we close our eyes at night.  I have always been a vivid dreamer but, once the pandemic hit, my dream life went on overload. Many of the images were so detailed and intense it was like watching an epic film unfold. Friends who usually paid little attention to their dreams reported strange visions that haunted them throughout the day.  So I began to wonder, Are these dreams more frightening than usual? What new terrors are cropping up?  Can these nocturnal horrors also be healers?  What’s the best way of dealing with them so we can feel at home in our beds and in the world again?

The Dream Collection

My first call was to Harvard psychology professor Deirdre Barrett who has collected over 8,000 coronavirus dreams, comparing them to those she collected after 9/11.  She is also author of the new book, Pandemic Dreams

“Back then people dreamed that they were out going about their business then suddenly  a plane crashed into the side of a building,” Barrett says. “These dreams often incorporated  one of the main visual elements shown on TV — a plane, a falling building. hijackers with knives. Our pandemic dreams are different because the virus itself is invisible.  There’s no single dramatic image that everyone is reacting to.”

In the first stage of the pandemic, we began dreaming about body sensations–having trouble breathing, spiking a fever.  Some of us borrowed dystopian imagery from Netflix:  “I’m on a street with huge piles of trash, in a scene from Contagion.”

Insect dreams were common, too.  Our fear of being attacked by the virus was also represented  by attacks by  bees and hornets, black flies swarming at the dreamer, a room that was filled with loathsome bugs.  “There were also masses of worms on the ground. Armies of cockroaches,” Barrett says. “One woman dreamt about a giant grasshopper with vampire fangs.”

The Netflix documentary, Tiger King, inspired a dream about the grim realities of unemployment. “This guy dreamt he got furloughed and the only job he could find was working for Joe Exotic,” Barrett says. “In the show, employees had to live in hovels and eat food from Walmart’s discard bin. The animals and the people weren’t treated very well.”

Then there were dreams about people and pets we wanted to protect.  At this point, Barrett began worrying about her students—psychiatric residents working in the ER or general admissions who were exposed, on a daily basis, to the virus.  She dreamed about trying to protect her wriggling cat from the transmission and later made this computer-generated image, showing a lamb in a gas mask.

Image courtesy of Deirdre Barrett

A second wave of pandemic dreams focussed on the trials of living under lockdown. “People sheltering in place alone tended to dream about being imprisoned,” says Barrett. “Those with families dreamt that a bunch of strangers had moved in.  One woman who was home schooling her only child dreamt the whole class showed up on her doorstep.”

As we began to emerge from our isolation, however, our dreams began to carry a sense of hope and optimism. 

“More recently, I’m seeing Mad Maxx post-apocalyptic dreams followed by an idyllic scene of where people live together in harmony and find new ways to cooperate,”  Barrett says.  

In the third wave, people are reporting dreams of whales and dolphins.  “These creatures are showing up, not just in the ocean, but in ponds or swimming pools in the dreamer’s own backyard,” Barrett adds, “In one dream, the whales have learned to fly.”

A wholesale clearing of the earth is a major theme: “The dreamer walks into her backyard and sees tall mountains in the distance.  She calls her mother and asks how this is possible. Her mother says they have been there all along.  ‘You just couldn’t see them because of the pollution.’”

In many dreams, the rivers that run through our major cities are suddenly full of tropical blue water.  “Magical things are happening because the air or sea is cleaner,” says Barrett.  In short, we’re getting a glimpse of a better world.

The Bigger Picture

How do we explain these images of regeneration?  “The dreaming mind is older than the waking mind and has a broader bandwidth and it simply knows more,” says psychologist Meredith Sabini, founder of the Dream Institute of Northern California, in Berkeley.  “It has access to our survival strategies—ones that have evolved for over two million years.”   

When I asked about these dreams of planetary renewal,  Sabini drew on the principles of evolutionary psychology.  “We’re longing for a way of life we used to have, in small clans, as hunter-gatherers,” she said.  “This is how we managed for 99 percent of our history as a species—living close to the earth.  I think our dreams are trying to bring us back to that baseline, to reconnect us to nature and to our original sense of home.”

Lascaux cave animal paintings courtesty of Wikimedia commons.

As the coronavirus unfolds, Sabini has been holding dream workshops on Zoom.  Recently, a participant shared this dream: 

“I’m talking to people about the painstaking and careful work scientists do to learn more about the world. Then a trickster interrupts us, and says, ‘Yes, but what about the accidents, and the unexpected, and all the messing up?’ I’m  then in my old classroom, a naturalist’s lab. I have set up a bug terrarium  but there’s a plant growing in it, with a few small buds. It’s comfrey.  The trickster knocks the buds off.  I decide I’ll save them:  They might even be a cure for Covid-19.”

“We talked about the word comfrey and her need for comfort,” Sabini said.  “But there was a bigger message here as well.  This dream is about two possible approaches to the pandemic. One involves  collecting scientific data and the other, making room for the  mysterious and inexplicable forces at work.  We need to be open to other ways of looking at the world because the unexpected does happen, and could lead to innovation and new forms of creativity.”

A Covid Dream

In early February, I was writing nonstop to revise our spring issue of Reinventing Home to reflect the challenges of dealing with the coronavirus. In the middle of my deadline,  I came down with all the classic symptoms — high fever, fierce headache, dry cough and delirium. After two weeks, I had to drag myself out of bed to meet our deadline.  Still fatigued and out of breath, but I kept pushing myself, refusing to admit that I was running on empty.  At this point, I had the following dream:  I’m trying to get to an important meeting but the subway station is closed. It’s an arduous walk, and when I arrive, the  office is in chaos. Armed men are taking the workers into custody.  There’s a shoot-out, and our lives are in danger.

For many, life seemed to be slowing down as we adjusted to the virus, yet I hadn’t allowed myself that luxury.  At the core of  my fear response was the  knee-jerk reaction, “If you work harder, everything will be all right.”  Then I got sick and had to face my own inner demons. A core complex—the kind of unhelpful behavior that’s lodged in the fear center of the brain. My “deadlinitis” had probably made me more susceptible to infection. And it certainly was an impediment to a full recovery.

As is turned out, a second dream gave me just the medicine I needed:  A Bengal tiger is walking down the middle of main street. This magnificent animal roams freely through the town — its fur gleaming, its muscles rippling.  There are no people about — no one telling the tiger what to do or where to go. The creature is one in itself.  It has no agenda but to simply be.

Photo by Jared Short on Unsplash

When I shared this pair of dreams, Sabini said, “Your fear of being stopped in your tracks came up in your first dream. Then you were actually taken down by the virus.  Later,  in the tiger dream, your psyche gave you what shamans call a power animal — a guide to your healing process. Draw on it!”

This animal wasn’t circus-trained, but fully wild. It had never been trained to jump through hoops. There was no way to hold that tiger. Its energy was immense. This was the reservoir I would start drawing on throughout my recovery.

After meditating on this tiger, I  stopped panicking about deadlines. It was time to slow down and simply breathe.  

“Since the virus struck, we’ve all been holding our breath, waiting to see what will happen next,”  Sabini said. “The tiger dream is telling you to focus not on deadlines but on maintaining your own life.”

After this enlightening conversation, I began to think about the biological purpose of dreaming.  If the dream acts as a regulator of the body and the psyche, that would explain why our pandemic dreams often come in pairs.  First, a terror dream complete with bodily symptoms and reactions. Then a dream that reassures us and show us how to cope.  

The Image Provides an Antidote

To explore the healing potential of dreams, I turned to Robert Bosnak, a Jungian analyst who created a technique called Embodied Imagination®. This involves running an image through the body to see what physical changes it produces. Bosnak’s method has been used by the Royal Shakespeare Company and applied to medical research and psychotherapy around the world.

The premise: If we work with an image physically we amplify its power—then it has the capacity to alter our whole organism. 

Bosnak hosts the weekly Spooky Dreams Café showing people how to use this method to understand their dreams, and create a personal remedy for living in the age of the coronavirus.

This week, there were dreams with foreboding images—encountering a wild animal in a swimming pool,  losing a grandmother’s home, facing the end of the world. 

Yet in each case, the fearful images led the dreamer to some deeper wisdom.  The lion turned out to be a calm and reassuring presence.  The grandmother’s backyard was home to a strong and stalwart rhino (no matter what happened, this creature was unperturbed).  And as the world was about to collapse, the dreamer and her family were saved by a great winged bird.

Bosnak asked participants to run these two sets of images through the channel of the body – to experience the tension at the start of the dream, then the sense of calm they had in the presence of the animals.

In these sessions, the dreamers moved from an initial experience of forboding to a place of trust and comfort.  This resolution wasn’t achieved through thinking or analysis, but by listening to the body and charting its responses. 

When I to applied this method to my own dreams, I was astonished by the physical and emotional reactions they evoked.  As I explored the feeling of getting shot at by the armed men in my office, my body went rigid and my heart rate increased, and I couldn’t breathe. 

When I focused on the tiger, my neck and chest muscles released, my heart rate slowed, and I felt an almost cellular infusion of energy as if I’d tapped directly into the Life Force.

Bosnak believes somatic dreamwork actually changes the immune system. My office dream represented my usual response to danger — “Work harder!” Yet today I can counteract that anxiety by calling up my tiger  — suddenly my shoulders relax, my breathing slows, and I’m able to relax.

Our worry about the virus and the shifts we have to make in our way of life puts the immune system on red alert and, of course, our dreams reflect that.  But dreams also give us the way to stop this over-reaction.  And if we listen to them carefully, they will tell us how to soothe and calm ourselves.

Bosnak draws on the emerging science of psychoneuroimmunology to explain how this works:

“We believe that the further we move away from habitual consciousness, the closer we come to the autonomic nervous system (ANS), our basic Operating System. In computers the OS interacts directly with the motherboard. In humans, this is the place where the image and physical body interact.”

The ancient Greeks knew that dreams have great healing power. Now we know that they can help us move from that “fight or flight” response to a place of safety and serenity.  We can use this kind of support as we face new challenges to our health and well-being in the months ahead.

Tune into Bosnak’s Spooky Dreams Café, and learn how your dreams can help you to create your own personal remedy for life in the age of the coronavirus.

Recommended Reading

By Deirdre Barrett:

Pandemic Dreams 

The Committee of Sleep — How Artists, Scientists and Athletes Use their Dreams for Creative Problem-solving, and You Can, Too.

Trauma and Dreams, essays by prominent psychologists and physicians, including Robert Jay Lifton and Oliver Sacks.

By Meredith Sabini:

The Earth Has a Soul: C.G. Jung on Nature, Technology and Modern Life

By Robert Bosnak:

A Little Course in Dreams

Tracks in the Wilderness of Dreaming

Embodiment: Creative Imagination in Medicine, Art and Travel

 

 

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