Why your dreams are so vivid in lockdown
From dreaming about an ex to nightmares of being pursued, a psychoanalytic take on vivid lockdown dreams and what they mean
According to research conducted by the Lockdown Dreams Project – a study run by postgraduate students of psychoanalytic theory at University College London (UCL) – 75% of people from all over the world have consistently reported experiencing more vivid dreams during lockdown.
If you’re having vivid dreams, you’re not alone…
Zara Haghpanah-Shirwan, a postgraduate researcher at the Psychoanalysis Unit at UCL, found that after the lockdown came into force at the end of March, she and others on her course began experiencing unusually vivid dreams. A quick scroll through social media confirmed they weren’t alone; similar experiences were being reported all over the world. Realising that these vivid dreams were something of a phenomenon and worth recording, Shirwan and her fellow researchers decided to set up the Lockdown Dreams Project.
‘We thought it would make a fascinating study to collect and analyse these lockdown dreams to see if we could identify any common themes occurring across them,’ she says. ‘[We also wanted to] look deeper into what these dreams may be telling us about how the experience of the pandemic, and the new restrictions put upon our day-to-day lives, had entered into our unconscious and was being experienced individually and collectively in our dreams.’
So far, the project has uncovered three core themes: frustration, persecution and anxiety, and regression.
Endless journeys, overcoming multiple obstacles, a foreboding sense of an insurmountable challenge lying ahead or a frantic search for a lost set of keys – such matters are often the fodder of frustration dreams.
‘There’s a real sense of people feeling thwarted in their aims and objectives within the dream,’ explains Shirwan, adding that these dreams were particularly common at the beginning of the lockdown when our physical movement was most restricted. ‘People can’t seem to do what they want to do or achieve their aims within these dreams.’
Of the three common themes, frustration dreams are the most prevalent according to the research. Why? ‘We are all experiencing huge frustration, consciously and unconsciously, with the radical changes to our day-to-day lives, along with the real horror of losing loved ones and fears for our families and livelihoods,’ points out Shirwan. ‘There’s a real sense of loss in the background as we try to adapt to the ‘new normal’.’
Frustration dreams also stem from a collective feeling of helplessness. ‘The invisible threat of Covid-19 is something that is equally insidious, frustrating and hard to come to terms with,’ she says. ‘While key workers have been on the front line throughout this pandemic, for many of us staying at home is the most we can do to [help stop the virus spreading]. This lack of agency in the collective fight may be repressed during the day, but is certainly finding an outlet in dreams.’
Persecution and anxiety dreams
We’ve all had them. The dreams you wake from stiff with terror, eyes still tightly closed in case the unpleasant figments of your imagination have somehow materialised in the reality of your bedroom. As a child, these dreams commonly involved being chased by creepy, ghoulish figures while, as an adult, they're more likely to manifest in you being taken hostage or, seemingly out of nowhere, ending up in a ginormous argument with an extremely aggressive character in the middle of the supermarket. Whatever the storyline, persecution and anxiety dreams can be truly spine-chilling. But why are we experiencing these dreams so often in lockdown?
‘With no end in sight, the uncertainty about the future and our own survival is placing a huge burden on our psychic life as we try to normalise our new reality under the shadow of an invisible enemy,’ explains Shirwan. ‘From a psychoanalytic perspective, an individual's desire to break the lockdown rules and thus endanger the lives of others may be leading to unconscious guilt, and further anxiety,’ she continues. ‘With Covid-19 looming large in all of our imaginations, our unconscious is looking for ways to visually represent this overwhelming threat in the language of dreams as we struggle to process this threat all around us, communicated by human proximity.’
What would be more disturbing than being pursued all night by an unsavoury character? For some, bumping into an estranged ex, or another absent figure from the past. These dreams can be unsettling, confusing and distressing in equal measure, leaving you pondering the past for the entirety of the next day – or week. These regression dreams have also been a powerful theme in lockdown. ‘People are aware that they are themselves, but younger, in these dreams,’ explains Shirwan. As such, the action often takes place in locations we frequented regularly in the past, such as old workplaces or family homes.
‘We have even had examples of bilingual people dreaming in their native language for the first time in many years, which is absolutely fascinating,’ she says. ‘Then there are some very sad and poignant dreams of people reporting that they dreamed that loved ones they’ve lost during lockdown would return when lockdown was lifted, and waking up extremely upset to find that this is, of course, not the case.’
Why does the reality of the pandemic make our subconscious plunge us back into the past at night? ‘Thinking psychoanalytically, the extreme global anxiety of the times may be awakening unconscious primal terrors of persecution, evoking the impulses to regress and so return us to a time before Covid-19 or a time we felt protected, and in the presence of the friends, family and loved ones that we are now forbidden to see,’ says Shirwan.
As the lockdown eases and things return to ‘normal’, how will our dreams evolve?
For some, dreams have already caught up with reality. ‘We’ve started to see dreams about anxieties relating to the easing of lockdown reported, as the fear of increased contact with other people mixes with the excitement of seeing loved ones for the first time in months,' says Shirwan, adding that dreams about Zoom calls going wrong, social distancing and fears about catching Covid-19 are also now common.
‘Freud believed that dreams are made up of the day’s residue, meaning that what we experience (or watch on TV) during the day becomes the raw material of the dream-work,’ she says. ‘We’ve had many dreams reported about transport – particularly airports and issues around disrupted flights and journeys, which reflect the widespread coverage of flight restrictions,’ she says.
Is there any good to be found in our vivid dreams?
While sometimes disturbing in the way they manifest, dreams are part and parcel of the brain's processing of information – and those we remember allow our waking minds to analyse our subconscious thoughts. ‘From a psychoanalytic perspective, our dreams, like our fantasies, are products of our own unique unconscious, made up of wishes and desires along with sensory material from the day,’ explains Shirwan.
‘From a Freudian perspective, interpreting dreams in analysis is meaningful and gives us a powerful insight into the unconscious. Freud famously called the interpretation of dreams the "royal road to the unconscious activities of the mind" in testament to their ability to reveal the deepest primitive workings and associations of our psyche,’ she says. In this line of thought, dreams can be seen as a type of disguised communication, offering a way into re-thinking elements of our personal histories, and shining a light onto our unconscious emotional conflicts and desires. ‘Armed with this deeper self-knowledge, we may be able to make clearer choices in our conscious life.’
Zara Haghpanah-Shirwan is a postgraduate researcher at the Psychoanalysis Unit at UCL and part of the Lockdown Dreams Project. To find out more about the project, click here.