Dreaming in the Time of Coronavirus By Leslie Ellis, PhD on 4/24/20 - 12:56 PM

A woman dreams of a knock on the front door and she opens it to find no one there. But something compels her to look down, and there is her son, lying dead. A man dreams of a dragon who is so large and so angry, he has the sense that it will overwhelm not only him, but the entire world. Its shadow passes over him but then grows so large it seems to obliterate the sun… I dream of a woman who jumped up onto a high platform, gracefully and lightly, yet with her balance tipped slightly back. And I watch in horror as she begins to fall gracefully to what I am sure will be her death.

Like what you are reading? For more stimulating stories, thought-provoking articles and new video announcements, sign up for our monthly newsletter.

In times of crisis like these, it is very common to have more intense and frequent dreams, and for the dreams to represent our deepest fears about the crisis. So, it comes as no surprise that many people, my clients included, are reporting more frequent dreams of death and of large, inexorable forces, so much bigger than they are.

One of the beautiful counterforces to all of this dread is the wonderful way people are coming together to offer mutual support. For example, on the Jung Platform, an online classroom disseminating practical ways to apply Jung’s ideas, Robert Bosnak is offering a free Friday-night Spooky Dreams Café as a gathering place for those who want to share their disturbing dreams. For an hour, Bosnak has been doing speed-dreamwork with participants and plans to do so for the duration of the crisis.

I offered my dream of the falling woman to the group. She is a friend of mine whose immune system is compromised, so in this dream there is some of my palpable concern for her as she is someone who would likely not survive a coronavirus infection. The dream also put me in direct contact with the feeling of watching a tragedy from a distance, seeing clearly what is about to happen, but without any way to intervene.

Bosnak asked me to embody first the supple and lithe way that my friend leapt onto the platform. And then I was guided to feel into the immense gravity of the fall, sucking my upper body backwards into my chair. I felt paralyzed. As I held both places simultaneously, I felt pulled apart. But in between, in my chest and belly, I felt an opening, and some heat. This is my practice, Bosnak said, to feel that heat.

In my own dreamwork practice, I work in a similar embodied-experiential way, but the steps I offer come from focusing, a practice philosopher/psychologist Eugene Gendlin developed as a way to gently inquire into our own felt sense of any situation. I have applied this method to trauma work and nightmares and have found these steps offer surprising ways to help my clients manage overwhelm and safely metabolize frightening feelings and dream images.

One of the ways to work with dreams in a focusing way is to embody the helpful images in the dream as a resource, in much the same way we help our trauma clients become resourced before going into any deeper work with their trauma. For example, with the man who dreamt of the dragon, I asked him to imagine he was the dragon, and from that vantage point, he was filled up with immense power and agency. And, as I often do with nightmares, I asked the dreamer to continue the dream from where it left off, as if he pressed the ‘play’ button on the final dream image. Typically, nightmares wake us up at their most frightening place. In this imagined dream ending, the dragon began to fly higher and higher until its shadow was a mere speck on the surface of the earth.

Imaginal ways to manage overwhelm

The overwhelming sense of powerlessness is a common dream theme right now because it is how so many of us are feeling. One thing that we often do in focusing, whether with day-world feelings or looming dream images, is to find a way to make them smaller, more manageable. We might find the right distance from our dream dragons (i.e. much further away) or shrink them down to the size of a mouse in our mind’s eye. What we are feeling in response to the coronavirus is a sampling of the collective dread, and this is more than one person can ever manage. Another way to work with such images is to ask clients to sense how much of what they are feeling belongs to them alone. It is usually a much smaller piece.

One more way of titrating the enormity of a crisis is to limit it in time — to just this present moment and the next one. For example, when I sensed into the immediate feeling I had about the helpless sadness in my falling-woman dream, seeking the right next step, it was clear what I needed to do. I called my friend and was reassured that she is fine and being extremely careful not to expose herself to any risk. I have also felt moved to use my particular skill set to help reduce some of the collective dread. I wrote an article for first responders (and anyone else suffering from nightmares) with some suggestions about what to do. I have opened a number of dream sharing groups and remote therapy sessions for front-line workers. I am using the ways I know best to help reduce collective anxiety one person and one dream at a time. The fire in my belly, borne of helplessness and fear, is being put to good use. And the man who dreamt of the dragon said his dream has changed, and now the dragon is a sentry, watching for early warning signs.

File under: Musings and Reflections, COVID-19 Blogs