Lockdown-induced nightmares: Are your dreams getting scarier?

Well, you’re not alone. Psychologist Ian Wallace reveals why so many of us are having lockdown-induced nightmares – and what we can do to chase them away.

It was in January that I noticed something strange – an influx of calls and emails from China. Lots of people were finding their sleep disturbed by intense and often frightening dreams. Many of those getting in touch had rarely, if ever, remembered their dreams before. But with the coronavirus rampant, they couldn’t escape them.

Then, as COVID-19 spread, I began hearing from people in Italy, the US, South America and the UK. Clients both old and new were reporting dreams and nightmares which were more distressing than anything they’d ever experienced before.

In my 40-year career as a dream psychologist I’ve analysed more than 300,000 dreams, but never have I encountered so many that are so vivid and turbulent, nor on such a wide scale.

Why are we dreaming more in lockdown?

With more people off work or no longer having to commute, alarm clocks have been switched off. This means waking up more naturally, and because dreams come in the final stage of any sleep cycle, we are remembering them more clearly.

Some people claim they don’t dream but that’s not true, everyone dreams – on average for around two hours a night. What these people are really saying is that they don’t remember their dreams. When you wake to an alarm, the dream phase is interrupted. It’s like walking from one room to another very suddenly, and this change of awareness means that dream memories fade quickly.

Our lockdown dreams are so vivid because it has put many of us in a heightened state
of anxiety: there is no vaccine yet, we have concerns about money and no one really knows the full extent of the threat, nor for how long it might be around.

Social isolation, too, is having a profound effect on our psyches. The days drift into each other without our normal opportunities to connect and plan, which can be extremely disorientating.

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli
And you thought yours were terrifying… The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli has intrigued since it was first exhibited at The Royal Academy in 1782. Image: The Picture Art Collection/Alamy Stock Photo. The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli (oil on canvas)

Why are our dreams more frightening now?

During the day we tend to focus on one thing at a time but our brains are absorbing more detail unconsciously. A lot of what we experience emotionally is unconscious, too – we don’t always recognise or dwell on our feelings even though they are complex. So dreaming is how we process these unresolved emotions from our day-to-day lives.

The stronger the emotion, the more intense the dream, which leads to people distinguishing between dreams and nightmares. A dream might be vivid but leave few lasting effects, whereas a nightmare, and the feelings it provokes, can linger – sometimes for years.

In a nightmare you start to turn up the volume, the vividness and the scariness of ordinary dreams because you’re trying to get your own attention. We’d all do well to listen to those messages and accept our fears in these troubled times.

I can be a guide to interpreting those images but, ultimately, the best person to understand what is going on is you.

The six most common nightmares

Being chased by a faceless enemy

Being chased is a common dream in normal times but these days there’s a twist. Clients, many of them doctors and paramedics, report that their pursuer is faceless and they can’t escape, no matter how hard they try.

Usually it’s a sign of some frustration in our waking lives, but now it shows how we’re struggling to escape from coronavirus and its effects, all of which are uncertain and unknowable. There is frustration, too, in being unable to pursue our daily lives in lockdown.

The walls are closing in

Finding yourself stuck in a restricted space that starts to contract as you move through it was an unusual dream before the pandemic – at number 90 in my ranking of the top 100 most common. It might be stairs getting narrower, or tiny holes in walls which shrink when you try to climb through them. This dream has shot to number two in part because it’s linked to the language we use to describe the virus – we talk of ‘contracting’ it. Our dreams actually become a visual pun as the space itself contracts.

As this dream is also being reported by people who work in nonessential roles, such as web design or writing, the space getting smaller reflects concern about career options or income prospects narrowing. In lockdown we’re all finding it physically harder to manoeuvre in confined living spaces, too.

Interestingly, there’s a gender divide: men tend to dream more of stone-walled tunnels while women see an underground river. Water is used in emotional language – take a phrase such as ‘at a low ebb’, for example – so there may be a feeling among women that they’re less able to express their emotions, or that they are being carried away by them.

You can’t make a call

If you’re trying to dial a phone number but can’t remember it, or the numbers come out jumbled, it could be that you are struggling to communicate, aren’t seeing eye to eye with someone or perhaps there is a person who doesn’t seem to be listening.

It’s unsurprising, given families are now in lockdown together and tensions will be running high – for example, one client’s elderly father was ignoring the advice to stay indoors.

It also shows a desire to clarify mixed messages and the confusion many feel about the official advice during the pandemic.

You are surrounded by rotten food

Finding all the food on the supermarket shelves is decaying might seem to have an obvious interpretation given the period of panic-buying. But it’s not as literal as that. In language, we use food imagery to communicate fulfilment, such as ‘a piece of cake’. It’s the same in dreams. The fact that this dream has risen from 78th place to number four in my top 100 dreams reveals how many of us are feeling unsatisfied.

An empty workplace

It might involve going to work but being unable to enter – the key card or the code might not work. Even once the dreamer gets inside, the rooms might be empty or the other people might completely ignore them.

In waking life, the workplace often gives us value and purpose – without it, we feel excluded or cast adrift. This dream is usually reported by those who have recently retired but now it’s being experienced by a huge range of age groups – many freelancers, or those who are part of the gig economy, as well as those who fear being furloughed (or have been already). It means there may be a need to discover your value in other ways.

A battle to the death

Usually a one-on-one physical fight with an adversary. You may feel strong, but no matter how hard you kick, punch or stab you can never overpower your opponent. They may even mock you as you try. It’s a relatively common dream – 58th on my list of the 100 most common dreams in normal times – especially among men in authority who feel insecure about their position. It’s about a conflict within themselves, a battle to preserve the façade. But it’s now more far reaching.

The implication is that, no matter our resources, everyone is vulnerable to the pandemic. Those with elderly or vulnerable relatives may be particularly likely to experience this dream, but the message is that we all have to accept our own – and society’s – vulnerabilities and work together to be protected.

How to ease the night terrors

  • Try to identify from your dream what it is you’re afraid of or anxious about, then talk to people about it. Be vulnerable and open up – that will reduce your fear. If you’re on your own, write things in a diary. Realise there are some things you can do and other things you can’t.
  • Look after your needs – don’t do things just to keep everyone else happy. This is difficult if you are living in a busy house during lockdown, but set some boundaries. One of the easiest ways to do this is to say ‘no’. It will enable you to feel less helpless and more in control.
  • Sometimes during a nightmare you may find yourself becoming aware that you are dreaming. These moments of lucidity come in the space between being asleep and awake and usually happen because you’re subconsciously trying to escape from the dream. Try to stay dreaming to influence what’s happening. Having that power and those choices will translate into your waking life, too.
  • Where you sleep should be really dark, cool and calm. Ignore screens or social media for an hour before bed because it keeps your mind active and disrupts your sleep patterns and therefore your dreams. Try reading a book instead.

Have you had any bizarre lockdown dreams? Email us at you.features@mailonsunday.co.uk. Ian Wallace is the author of The Top 100 Dreams: The Dreams That We All Have And What They Really Mean.