Strange times with strange dreams - but what do they mean?

As we report strange dreams in these strange times, dream analyst Michael Murphy deconstructs their meanings
Strange times with strange dreams - but what do they mean?

As we report strange dreams in these strange times, dream analyst Michael Murphy deconstructs their meanings

People report that they’re experiencing very vivid dreams at the moment during this period of physical distancing and cocooning.

They’re having broken sleep because of the widespread anxiety they’re feeling, sometimes waking from a terrifying nightmare coming at them out of the dark.

While this reaction is upsetting, it’s an appropriate physiological response to the coronavirus pandemic, something that pertains all people everywhere.

Human beings are at the mercy of a deadly virus against which we have no immunity, truly the stuff of nightmares. We have to immediately wake up to this danger in order to protect ourselves.

Coronavirus is having a major effect on the quality our dreams. The following dream was related to me this week by a middle-aged woman.

She said: “My husband and I were looking to buy a house together. It was derelict, and there was rubble in the backyard. I said, ‘There’s a snake in the wheelbarrow’. My husband didn’t listen to me and started poking with his arm. The snake rises up to his elbow joint about to bite. I woke up terrorised.”

From talking to her, it emerged that her husband actually had his arm down the snake’s throat, about to be punctured by the poisonous fangs.

While there are undoubted sexual aspects to this rich dream — looking, snake, poking, rises up, bite — the terrifying aspect for her was the overwhelming fear of contagion which her husband was ignoring.

The dream dramatised in vivid terms her terror that her husband was going to be poisoned, bitten by Covid-19 if you like, which he picked up from poking in the waste fragments of stones and bricks, a reference to his work.

What they were buying was derelict. It had been abandoned and left behind, which the woman said was her helpless feeling at the quarantine restrictions, as well as not being listened to.

So this caring wife needs to have an insistent chat with her husband about the protective measures both of them need to put in place if they’re to remain safe.

File image.
File image.

Dreams arise from bursts of activity in a biologically ancient part of the mid-brain known as the limbic system.

This includes the most primitive, instinctive part —the reptilian brain — responsible for rapid eye movement or dream sleep, which evolved 130 million years ago. The limbic system has to do with our emotions, and plays a role in memory storage.

Scientific research shows that dreams are a neural process whereby information essential to the survival of the species gathered during the day is reprocessed into memory during REM sleep, so that our collective survival strategies are updated.

This is exemplified in the recent dream of a young man on the cusp of adulthood, shadowed by present-day events:

I’m going to a funeral wake, leaving hospital after surgery. How I get there changes — sometimes by ambulance, sometime a family member like my brother or mother drives me.

So this dream has to do with death’s funeral rites, and the watching vigil, the wake, which also means to rouse from sleep and stay awake for a purpose. He was quite clear that his present purpose is to survive the deadly virus.

What was unspoken in this dream he said was the fear that after surgery, the wake could be for himself. I pointed out that in his case the surgery has already been completed, and his survival strategy has to do with getting back into the driving seat, and not be driven about like a helpless invalid or child.

He needed to embrace adulthood, take charge of his life and be responsible. Interestingly, the word surgery means healing by manual operation, which is the opposite to being contaminated by our unwashed hands.

I’m hearing a noticeable increase in nightmares. A nightmare is an anxiety dream in which the feelings of fear and terror are experienced to such an intense degree that the dreamer is overwhelmed and often is forced into wakefulness.

There’s an overpowering sense of danger a nightmare. The dreamer is under threat of a violent attack from aggression, castration, separation, abandonment, or being devoured.

Regression to an intense state of infantile helplessness is a common feature.

“I had a dream two nights ago that myself and my little grandson were at the sink drying cutlery, and my back door opened and in came my ex-husband’s uncle and my Dad who are both dead.

“My dad had a hold of me. I kept protesting, ‘No dad, no dad!’ I thought that I too had died. When I woke up my heart was racing.”

This dream again is about the fear of death, which the woman told me was triggered by the grim statistics on the news. The woman thinks she has died and is going to be taken away by her dead father who has hold of her.

She spiritedly protests her helpless state when face to face with such overwhelming anxiety. She wakes up to the situation that she still has time to do ordinary things like drying cutlery with her grandson.

The purpose of this dream is to encourage her to value even more this heartfelt normality, which can still take place despite the unprecedented circumstances.

Grannies have an important role to play for children, so the dream is encouraging her to pass on the wisdom of the ancestors — from both sets of genes — great-grandfather and great granduncl — and set down memories to enrich the child’s future while she still has the gift of time to set the heart racing.

Yesterday a healthy athlete was almost embarrassed to relate this.

I dreamed where it feels like someone is sitting on my chest trying to strangle me. It’s actually happening to me until I wake up and realise it’s not real. It’s extremely scary.

A nightmare is an evil, female spirit who afflicts sleepers with a feeling of suffocation The woman thinks she has died and is going to be taken away by her dead father who has hold of her.

She spiritedly protests her helpless state when face to face with such overwhelming anxiety. of not being able to breathe, which is one of the symptoms of Covid. So this fairly common nightmare has an added resonance during this emergency.

The verb the athlete used to strangle — means to choke or smother. She said she doesn’t suffer from sleep apnea, and that most likely the dream is a manifestation of her horror at being so deprived of oxygen that she’d have to go on a ventilator.

Finally, the following is the dream of an elderly widow who has been cocooning for the past few weeks.

“I’m in a big old building with lots of doors and with people I haven’t seen before. I’m trying to get out but I can’t find my way out. I’m frightened and nobody tries to help me.”

The woman worried at first that the dream was saying she was about to end up in a nursing home with people she didn’t know. Then she recognized that the dream was showing the effects on her of social isolation, of being locked inside and not being able to get out.

And she was frightened. The reality is that while she has good neighbours, and she says she’s in contact every day with her children who’re abroad, there’s a definite warning for her in the dream.

Studies show that even short periods of social isolation can increase anxiety and depression, and she needs to be aware of that. The woman hadn’t realized that the cocooning was affecting her so deeply, and now she has the opportunity to mitigate its worst effects.

Anything further that can free her from being locked inside —journalling, talking freely to her therapist over the phone, contacting her friends online — essentially putting what she’s feeling into words will help to unlock what’s building up inside.

Dreams reveal our unconscious mind.

By paying attention to the ancient wisdom of our dreams, we can draw on this vital, unconscious resource to more appropriately react to the particular circumstances we face today, and make better choices that’ll contribute to our future survival and success.

By trying to decipher our dreams, we can get additional data upon which to base our conscious choices, so that we’re more in tune with our true selves.

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