I’ve had terrifyingly vivid dreams for as long as I can remember. I’m talking run-to-cuddle-with-my-older-brother-when-I-was-fifteen nightmares. I’ve been in the middle of the Atlantic treading water, watching with panic as shark fins slowly approach. I’ve drowned in gallons of Jamba Juice in the middle school cafeteria. I’ve even been held captive in a tattoo parlor with needles all over my body while I beg the artists to stop. (This is why I have no tattoos.)
So a few weeks ago, when my occasionally panicky sleep became an almost nightly appointment, I didn’t think much of it. One night, I dreamt I was the lead in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar (yes, playing Jesus) and couldn’t remember my lyrics. The night after that, I dreamt I was on the Titanic as it was sinking. And no, Jack Dawson wasn’t there.
That weekend, I shared my latest horror story with a few friends on Zoom. I made it through the details—a human-sized lobster tail, curiously stuffed with radishes, which morphed into a family of snow leopards (I attribute that to a certain Tiger King binge), which quickly became a family of murderers dressed in snow leopard onesies—with less laughter than expected. Instead, they sang a chorus of “me too!” and our virtual birthday party turned into a Jungian share circle.
My friends recalled botched haircuts and ex-boyfriends and forced re-enrollment in high school at the age of 30. And while no one else was dreaming of radish-stuffed lobster tails morphing into murderers, it does seem like everyone is dreaming more frequently and more vividly right now. According to the New York Times, “why am I having weird dreams lately” has quadrupled in Google search in just the past month. News outlets have even started calling them “quarandreams.”
Wait, what are quarandreams?
For an answer to that overly Googled question, I asked Anne Cutler, New York-based psychoanalyst and dream interpreter. Right off the bat, she assured me that there’s a real reason for the extra-dreamy sleep so many of us are experiencing. We dream more when we sleep more, and that’s true right now for most of us. Those of us who’ve been sleep-deprived for years and are finally catching up are particularly susceptible to vivid dreaming. We’re also using alarms less, which have an 80% chance of interrupting our natural dream cycle.
Perhaps more notable than increased dreaming, though, is our increased recall. “Normal routines have shifted, which may also impact dreaming and dream recall,” Cutler explains. “If one is getting a longer night's sleep, for example, there will be longer sleep time spent in REM sleep, the phase of sleep when most vivid dreams occur. And, morning routines that don't involve rushing to make a commute may be more conducive to remembering dreams when awakening, instead of immediately thinking about what's ahead for the day.”
And then, of course, there’s our universally heightened anxiety, a near guarantee for super-vivid, fantastical dreams. “Anxiety dreams, or nightmares, are more common during this time,” Cutler notes. “These tend to be more memorable because the imagery can be quite dramatic, and the fear levels in the dream can be enough to wake one up out of the dream.”
Got it. And how do we unpack them?
Cutler offers us a framework and a few tips and tricks for interpreting your own dreams. Interpreting is, in essence, detective work: in exploring our unconscious minds, we increase our self-awareness and reveal underlying root causes of conscious feelings or behaviors. (In case you missed it, nightmares are a clear indication of anxiety.) Our unconscious is more accessible when we’re sleeping and our dreams are a bright, flashy indicator of how we’re really doing. “Dreams employ imagery, metaphor, plays on words, hyperbole, and other devices to create meaning,” Cutler explains. “Understanding a dream often involves decoding the meaning of these elements.”
To fully understand a dream, Cutler recommends spending time “associating to each image and element in a dream, like pieces of a puzzle, that you take apart and then put back together to understand the whole. Also, pay attention to the feelings in a dream, which are additional cues to underlying meaning.” So, in the case of the lobster-turned-snow-leopard-turned-murderer saga, I’m contemplating—in my dream journal, of course—what these animals and this setting might represent in my life. And when images in our dreams are larger-than-life (like, say, the human-sized tail), our unconscious is begging us to pay extra-close attention.
From there, Cutler suggests calling to mind recent or ongoing happenings in our conscious, waking minds. Issues that are stress-inducing or unresolved are particularly strong clues for dream interpretation, as our unconscious seeks to find a resolution. Including these “real-life” feelings or events in our dream journals is a helpful tool in unpacking our seemingly nonsensical dream stories.
…And the lobster?
With all that in mind, I was still itching for an explanation of the lobster tail. (In my dream, this lobster began dormant, sleeping between my husband and me before taking flight, speeding out of our bedroom, and morphing into a family of snow leopards. I sat up in bed to get a better glance through the open door and, in doing so, realized they were murderers. At that moment, I jumped from the bed and ran to the door, hoping to safely padlock us in. I failed continuously and woke from the fear.)
After explaining that dreams are deeply personal and only we can truly ascribe them meaning, Cutler did grant me her analysis. Throughout the dream narrative, as I sought more and more information, my circumstances became more threatening. With each animal transformation, I became more afraid and more desperate to keep us safe. In failing to do so, a fear response woke me. Cutler and I agreed that this mirrors both a personal and communal relationship with the pandemic. The more information I learn, the more afraid I feel. Try as I might, I cannot truly protect myself or my family. On the bright side, Cutler notes that we actually experience a calming effect when we’re able to recognize our fears and understand where they lie.
And what about my friend reenrolling in high school at 30? “Dreams are typically triggered by thoughts and experiences in the day or days leading up to the dream, often called the dream context or day residue,” Cutler explains. “A dream can often give personal historical context to our current preoccupations by pointing us to times in our past when similar issues arose or originated.” In other words, it’s an indication that we’re processing emotions and anxieties similar to those experienced, say, 15 years back. Just when you thought you could KonMari your yearbook.
The good news? Dreams are trainable (sort of).
Cutler notes that we can actually train our unconscious to focus wherever or however we want. We do this by giving some extra love to our pre-sleep thoughts. These final waking moments of the day tend to reflect our minds’ preoccupations and play a powerful role in our dreaming. In an effort to dream happier dreams, try repeating this mantra ten times before bed: “Tonight I’m going to dream about ___.” It might be a favorite vacation destination, a beloved family member or the Ben & Jerry’s factory (just me?). For a slightly less prescriptive route, try “Tonight, I will dream in a way that helps me understand ___.” Or, more simply, “Tonight, I will remember my dreams.” While this practice isn’t a surefire way to avoid dreams about botched haircuts and ex-boyfriends, Cutler says that it affects our sleep and considerably increases our chances of having pleasant dreams.
And if nightmares are causing interrupted sleep night after night, consider it a cinematic reminder that your anxiety or stress levels need some daytime TLC. “Dreams are an opportunity to increase self-awareness of what's under the surface, including memories, internalized belief systems and conflicts,” Cutler says. They provide us with rich material to increase our understanding of ourselves, which is the gift that keeps on giving. At the end of the day (err, night), we stand to learn a great deal from our wildest dreams.
Tonight, I’m going to dream about Jack Dawson. Tonight I’m going to dream about Jack Dawson…