Since the recent lockdown and the mandatory wearing of masks in Melbourne, almost every night I dream nightmares. They have the same theme – that there is nothing I can do to save myself or others. The world is chaotic, out of control, dark, dangerous, post-apocalyptic and full of trepidation. Law, order and civil society have broken down completely.
In my dreams I am usually running to find the people I love and with whom I need to cooperate in such an unpredictable world, but I can never find them. As I call for them, my voice disappears into a vacuum. I am searching for them relentlessly, but I never get any closer to finding them.
Everything I try to do towards this end comes undone, fails, backfires. I suddenly find myself trying to walk thigh deep through mud, or there is so much mess and destruction around me that I cannot find my way out, or there are suddenly huge amounts of smoke and barely any oxygen making me struggle to breathe despite needing to hurry.
In these dreams I have no control or competency to get even the smallest task done. Everything familiar no longer works how it used to. Doors won’t open, bikes won’t roll, cars won’t start. I find that I am all alone in a completely unfamiliar world. Then I wake up.
Upon awakening, I ask myself what is happening and why am I suddenly having these nightmares? What purpose might they be serving?
As surprising as it might sound, my brain has (almost unbeknown to me) detected the Stressful Life Event that is COVID19 – as it goes on all around me.
In fact, my pre-conscious brain knows exactly what I have lost (even if I have not yet fully grasped the possible implications consciously). My life as it was is perhaps dead. The future is new, unchartered territory where old rules no longer apply.
Yet, strangely I am the last one to know about my loss. In fact, my conscious brain is resisting the knowledge of the dramatic change in the world. I want to turn back the clock and look away from the instability that is so self-evident in the daily world news.
I want to keep hoping that everything will return to pre-COVID days. I certainly don’t want to know that there is instability and chaos in the USA or that China is pressing for opportunities to dangerously expand.
Surprisingly though, my pre-conscious brain is fully aware of this calamity, and it is actually trying to help me adapt to the new COVID19 world through my nightmares.
It is trying to get me to ‘habituate’ and ‘calm down’ by holding me in sustained contact with these frightening emotions during sleep (while releasing calming GABA neurotransmitter), so that, having been pre-exposed, I can better deal with any despair, loneliness, unfamiliar territory, and possible death or destruction that might arise during the daytime from this situation.
My brain is trying to help me to ‘grieve’ via this habituation so that I can move on and adapt. The faster the better. It is habituating me to stand on my own feet, live without love (if necessary) and keep going no matter how hard. This is why my dreams have me endlessly struggling through deep mud or mess, never finding the people I love but nevertheless keeping on trying relentlessly to move onwards. The smoke and not being able to breathe probably represents the virus itself, and the mandatory wearing of face masks and the breathing difficulty they present daily for all of us.
While this whole scenario might sound somewhat dramatic, it is worth remembering that in the West, people born post WW2 have generally had a highly stable period of time that has possibly ‘taught’ us to make what is known as the ‘black swan’ error.
This is where we assume there are no black swans and then out of the blue we see one and it has major repercussions for our entire theoretical framework (or the way we see the world).
In the case of post WW2, many of us have comfortably assumed life was stable and predictable (and maybe it will be again) – but the reality is that COVID19 has introduced a highly unpredictable variable at the same time as having many unpredictable, authoritarian and dangerous world leaders.
Another way that nightmares serve us well is to remind us to never become complacent and allow things to happen to us. They alert us early to pay attention, notice the shifting landscape and take appropriate proactive action.
Remember that events in history can change and regress fast. Earlier generations had all sorts of traumatic events to deal with like political repression, no suffrage or free speech, extreme economic hardship, starvation and ghastly wars.
In these difficult times, we need to notice our nightmares, not be scared of them. We all need to grieve (for our losses) and adapt fast and then stay highly tuned to ensuring civil, fair and democratic society is able to thrive no matter what the challenges.