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The profound connection between dreams and wellbeing

French poet and writer André Breton could not understand why mankind neglected the dreamworld: “I have always been amazed at the way an ordinary observer lends so much more credence and attaches so much more importance to waking events than to those occurring in dreams.” He favoured the Freudian theory of dreams which, while one of several hypotheses, argues that they are a window into the unconscious.

The function of dreams is important as they have made a worldwide resurgence during the pandemic due to the shift in our routines. This change is not only impacting the frequency but also the content of our dreams as research reveals they have become more vivid and distressing. A knock-on effect is sleep disruption and the inability to work effectively the next day. What’s the science behind this spike, and more importantly, how can we navigate the unsettling nature of our dreamworld to improve our workplace wellbeing in the face of collective trauma?

Shifting sleep cycles: the re-emergence of REM

There are two reasons why the world is dreaming more. First, according to Harvard University’s dream researcher Deidre Barrett, we are no longer at the mercy of a long commute, and so we can sleep for longer, or even bid farewell to the alarm clock entirely by waking up naturally. Our extended sleep means that we are experiencing more complete sleep cycles. So, while modern life was essentially cutting out the final stage of sleep known as rapid eye movement (REM), we are now experiencing more REM sleep. Crucially, this is where half our dreaming time takes place.

Second, lockdown has been an undoubtedly stressful period due to factors such as loneliness, balancing work life with childcare, or adapting to working from home. This anxiety can reduce the quality of our sleep which means we are waking up more often. According to Megan Crawford at the Strathclyde Sleep Research Unit, frequent awakenings, also known as parasomnias, are normal during these periods because our bodies are preparing us to fight or flee. However, parasomnias are also linked with increased dream recall.

Tripping out: a dream’s emotion-laden epicentre

The world’s deep reaction of the crisis is most reflected in the highly vivid and bizarre content of our dreams. In fact, neurobiologist Patrick McNamara explains that our brain mimics a psychedelic trip when dreaming. The visual and emotional areas become more active while the dorsal prefrontal cortex, which controls linear logic, is shut off. The upshot is emotional disinhibition where our intuitions take over and “emotions flood the consciousness”.

Professor Barrett has been collecting coronavirus dreams since March, and while some reference the situation literally, such as feeling short of breath from the virus, others are more metaphorical. For example, those who feel too crowded at home dream the whole neighbourhood has moved in, whilst those who feel alone may dream that they are on Mars or in prison. Another major category is bug-attack dreams, and Barrett has noted wriggling worms, grasshoppers with vampire fangs and armies of cockroaches. It’s clear the crisis is having a extreme impact on wellbeing as indicated by our unconscious film reel.

Dream function: the overnight therapy

How can we make sense of this surge in strange and frightening dreams? One theory claims that dreams are the by-product of a process whereby helpful memories move from short- to long-term storage and less useful memories fade away. Another widespread Freudian account posits that dreams are an expression of our unconscious, calling to mind the feelings we neglect in waking life.

The most popular theory, however, is that dreams help us to process our emotions and memories. Blagrove and his colleagues found a correlation between the emotional strength of our experiences in waking life and the content and intensity of our dreams. In other words, when we are working hard to process emotional experiences, our dreams attempt to soothe the stress by acting as a healing mechanism.

Dreams and wellbeing: uniting inner and outer worlds

Talk: A lot of people quietly moan when someone starts a sentence with “I had the strangest dream last night…” as they realise that they will soon be forced to hear about the dark recesses of the speaker’s mind. But psychologist Mark Blagrove argues that dream sharing presents a perfect opportunity for social bonding at a time when our interactions with one another are limited. Not only can this exercise alleviate stress, but it can increase our empathy, which Blagrove claims can remedy the narcissism epidemic that has been plaguing the Western world over the past 40 years.

…So instead of immediately talking shop on your next work call, try offering your colleagues a judgement free environment to ponder the peculiar world of their dreams.

Explore: Another tip for traversing the trauma of dreams is beginning a dream journal. Barrett claims that reflecting on dream content can make us aware of unacknowledged concerns during this unsettling period. She claims that upsetting feelings associated with a dream usually ease only once we have consciously understood them. Precisely as Freud said: “Dreams are never concerned with trivia.”

…This is also a good option for individuals who are not quite ready to let their team know that they were victim to an alien invasion about 2 hours before the 9am call.

Redirect and reframe: It is possible to influence your dreams without mastering lucid dreaming. In a study, Barrett found that half her sample were able to influence their dreams by imagining what they wished to dream about prior to falling asleep: “Tell yourself, ‘I want to dream about this tonight”. However, if you can’t redirect your negative dream, it is also possible to reframe it upon awakening. Psychology Professor Julie Carrier recommends rewriting the ending of a bad dream in your mind, or on paper (particularly useful for children), to defeat the monster or solve the problem.

…Simple visualisation before and after a disturbing dream allows us to dilute its distressing effect on our wellbeing.

Taken together, the pandemic has shone a light on the dreamworld. The result of experiencing stressful dreams, disrupted sleep or even worse, both, is that we are less capable to tackle the demands of work. Seek solace that you are not alone. Be curious about your inner world, and if you are willing, share insights from your dreams with colleagues. But above all, “don’t worry about your dreams”, says circadian neuroscientist Robert Foster, “take comfort in the fact that your brain is doing what it should be doing.”

Published: 15th July 2020


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Walsh, Colleen. 2020. What pandemic may come. The Harvard Gazette [online]

Watson, Galadriel. Having coronavirus nightmares? Here’s what you can do about those bad dreams. The Washington Post [online]