This article originally appeared on VICE Spain.
When I mentioned on Instagram that I've been having the weirdest dreams during quarantine, dozens of people replied telling me about their own dreams. I won't recount them here, because it's a universal truth that it's extremely boring to hear about other people's dreams.
But the fact is, my unscientific research revealed I'm certainly not alone in having more intense dreams during the pandemic – or at least remembering them more. People said their dreams had been more disturbing, and often with highly unsubtle coronavirus symbolism: if we're not dreaming of empty supermarket shelves, we're fighting in the trenches. It appears our subconscious doesn't agree that war is a bad analogy for the pandemic.
Symbolism or not, the best thing about dreams is that they can't be completely explained. "Scientifically, dreams have always had, and still have, a certain essence of mystery surrounding them," said psychologist and private practitioner Francisco López Cánovas, explaining that psychologists approach dreams like "detectives approach a crime".
"Doctors are interested in whether or not a patient has nightmares, because it can indicate that someone has suffered an experience that was difficult to take in psychologically," he said. "Sleep tends to be an activity that 'compensates' or reflects our psyche throughout the day."
A simple example would be that if we go to bed hungry, we could dream we're in a restaurant waiting for a great meal. During a pandemic we might dream of the various fears our subconscious is busy suppressing during the day.
Clinical psychologist Juan Antonio Membrive, who recently published a Twitter thread about why we've been having weird dreams during the pandemic, argued there is only so much we can know about what's happening in our subconscious – but he did have a few theories.
Depressingly, Membrive basically said we're remembering more of our dreams because they're all we've got at the moment. "Throughout the day, when we have experiences that are meaningful or out of the ordinary, they function as 'markers' in our memory," he wrote. "We pay more attention to these events. During confinement, we have fewer experiences throughout the day, so it's easy for our dreams to stand out."
His second hypothesis concerned our attention and mood. "Dysphoric mood (or discomfort) and low stimulation are two conditions that increase your self-focus (focus on yourself and your own psychological reactions)," he said. "So we know that an altered mood can cause us to have more dreams and, above all, dreams with a greater emotional charge. Among them, nightmares."
López Cánovas said the subject of our dreams was less to do with external events that happen to us, and more to do with our internal thoughts during the day. "To make dreams, the brain can start with events and real people, but we also find that it can create unknown images. Therefore, both children and adults can end up having a dream about something that they have never seen or lived through."
But how to interpret them? "In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud explained that in his experience a dream is usually a hallucinatory realisation of more or less conscious wishes of the dreamer," said López Cánovas.
As for dreams about conflict, threats and war, Membrive said, "The content of our dreams usually refers to aspects related to survival, such as threats to our integrity and our own health or other related themes such as aggression." He thinks our memories are more likely to grab onto these subjects in the current climate.
So if we can understand the mechanisms behind our dreams to some extent, can we control them? The simple answer is no. "There are people who naturally experience the ability of 'choosing' what to dream about or what to do within a dream. But even for these people, sleep is a largely autonomous process," explained Membrive. "You can train yourself in lucid dreaming. It's been used to treat chronic nightmares, with good results in some cases."
One technique is known as systematic desensitisation. "Basically, we repeat the problematic dream in our imagination while we are awake, but with a different ending or while trying to relax, as an alternative behaviour to the anxiety-inducing, threatening nature of the dream," Membrive explained. This technique is often used when a patient's nightmares get so bad they interfere with everyday life.
What we can do to try to prevent quarantine nightmares is keep our sleep patterns healthy, said clinical neurophysiologist Javier Albares, a specialist in sleep medicine from the Teknon Clinic of Barcelona. Our sleep patterns work to a circadian rhythm, which self-isolation can mess with. "Our internal clocks need three external synchronisers: light and dark, food and physical activity. Three factors that are very easy to lose in quarantine." He cited social relations as a fourth factor – something that's currently especially hard to maintain.
But there are small things we can do. "Opening the curtains and blinds as soon as we get up tells our body that it's daytime, and gets us activated," said Albares. "The sooner you get some light, the sooner you'll be tired. The same goes for darkness: two or three hours before sleeping, we should start telling our bodies that it's night, so that we secrete the sleep hormone melatonin."
Maintaining some semblance of an eating routine, even if that means routinely eating cereal in bed, will help to "mark the rest of the routines in our day", he explained, while physical activity also aids sleep. Lastly, he recommended we put ourselves on an "information diet" – regulating the time we spend scrolling constant news updates and trying some meditation or mindfulness instead.
But if none of the above works and your dreams still feel like a Tarantino remake of Apocalypse Now, maybe it's time to start a dream journal. Just remember: the excitement you feel when retelling a dream is directly proportional to the torture experienced by the person forced to listen.