Dreams

The other night I had a nightmare. I can’t remember very many details from the dream and I don’t have a narrative story that I can tell of the dream. In the dream I was walking away from the house where we now leave and there was a sense that I had to leave. I don’t know where I was going. I didn’t get very far away in the dream. What I can remember is that I woke feeling upset. I got out of bed and read for a while to calm myself. I can’t remember a time before that dream that I had such a dream. I did experience nightmares as a child on occasion. Most children do and there is some evidence that dreams that are emotionally upsetting are more common during childhood than adulthood. It has been theorized that nightmares are part of the way that people practice for emotionally tense situations and that we learn from our dreams how to deal with the realities of our lives.

I guess I had a type of nightmare in the period of time after my wife experienced cardiac arrest in the hospital. While she was still in the Intensive Care Unit I woke with a start and experienced a small panic attack when there was a code blue in the hospital ICU. This code did not involve my wife, but it caused my heart rate and breathing to elevate noticeably. Afterward, I woke with a start a few more times to find similar results. Some months later, I woke suddenly thinking I was having a panic attack, but checked my heart rate and breathing and they were not elevated. I decided that I am capable of dreaming of a panic attack when I am not having a panic attack. The thought amused me. The experience ceased and hasn’t happened since.

A week or so ago the BBC published an article that said that reports of nightmares by adults have increased dramatically during the year of pandemic. One theory is that nightmares increase as stress increases. People are under a great deal of stress with unemployment, isolation, increased responsibilities and other things that affect them during the pandemic. Another theory is that nightmares are related to depression and there is significant evidence that depression has become more prevalent during the pandemic.

Whether or not we remember them, dreams are important to memory. Dreams are part of a process by which our brains sort out events and emotions and organize them for future retrieval. People who are severely sleep deprived begin to have problems with memory, especially short-term memory. Their brains become unable to retrieve memories because the memories are jumbled and they haven’t had enough time for their brains to organize them. As I write, I realize that I am speaking in analogy. The complex electro-chemical reactions of your brain aren’t exactly the same as filing cabinets that need to be organized. It is more accurate to think that the brain rehearses the firing of synapses that are required to retrieve a memory. In addition to memories of names, events, and ideas we also have memories of emotions. Our ability to remember emotions plays a big part in our being able to handle stressful situations. We can recognize anger and know that we’ve felt that before. We can learn techniques to express our anger in ways that are less destructive. We learn to recognize love. We learn to be less fearful in the depths of grief. We use memory to help us face the challenges of everyday life. To the extent that dreams help us sort our memories, they are important.

An added complexity to understanding dreams is that most of us do not consciously remember many of our dreams. Dream researchers know that people can learn to remember dreams. A discipline of recording dreams upon waking will increase the ability to remember dreams. We had a college professor who kept a complete dream journal for decades. He was able to accurately remember ten or more dreams from each night. I have never disciplined myself to remembering dreams. Occasionally, when I remember a dream, I will report it to Susan and we may discuss it. Most of the time the meanings of my dreams are very easy to discern. I would dream of not being prepared at the start of a worship service, for example. It was a fairly constant struggle for me to be prepared not only to lead worship, but to gracefully deal with interruptions in my planning. The dreams seemed to me to be a simple reflection of my life with some details exaggerated.

My recent nightmare must have some meaning in my life, but it isn’t immediately obvious. The dream occurred the night after we received our second doses of Covid vaccine. Unlike some of our friends, we did not have unpleasant reactions to the injections. We didn’t experience any negative symptoms or feel ill in any way. And I haven’t experienced vaccination in a negative way. We went out of our way to seek vaccination as soon as possible when we became eligible. I don’t think that I have been stressed by receiving the vaccine. It has been a cause for celebration.

And if the dream was about dealing with the emotions of leaving home, you’d think that I might have experienced it when we moved away from our home of 25 years in South Dakota rather than months later when we are settled and comfortable in a new home. Since the dream was specific about me leaving this particular house it might be an expression of some anxiety about this house, but it is a rental and we have no intention of settling in this particular house long term.

So I don’t understand my dream. Perhaps it was simply a gift so that I can have more compassion and understanding for those who are experiencing great increases in stress and having more nightmares as a result.

The human brain is full of mystery and we understand so little of how it works. I’m unlikely to begin analyzing my dreams at this stage of my life, but from time to time they entertain me and give me something to think about. And as long as nightmares are rare, I’ll pay more attention when I do remember one. And I’ll continue to wish sweet dreams for others.