Nightmares and maintaining our mental health

Nightmare Image credit: Stefan Keller/Pixabay

It’s the nightmares that stick with me.

On the whole, I’m a calm and rational person. I’ve adopted social distancing practices readily. I’ve adapted to working from home fairly smoothly. (Nearly five weeks in and I’m not climbing the walls yet.) And I’ve even been able to compartmentalise my concerns about from COVID-19 and push them to the back of my mind.

I’m in control. At least, I am when I’m awake.

When I’m asleep, that’s another matter entirely.

The stuff that (bad) dreams are made of

It’s not that I don’t have any good dreams. We were at Disney World this time last year and memories of Orlando often pop up. Or I’ll imagine how much better life will when things return to normal: all the places we’ll go; all the good habits we’ve developed during lockdown that will stay with us.

But it’s the nightmares that leave the most lasting impression. Those thoughts that creep into my mind when my consciousness is looking the other way.

There’s nothing unique about my nightmares. Me alone in a hospital bed, unable to breathe properly, my resistance crumbling, my family unable to even be in the same room. Being on the outside looking in, powerless, while one of our kids battles to hold on to life. Answering a 3am phone call from my brother and just knowing that he has bad news about my octogenarian parents.

There are times when I only wake up once the nightmare has finished; at others it’s mid-dream. Sometimes it’s that gentle awakening where I ease slowly through semi-consciousness and I’m at least half-aware that I was dreaming all along. But occasionally it’s that dramatic bolt-upright-in-a-cold-sweat snap back to reality that leaves me completely disorientated and panting for breath.

Obviously, the nightmares are a manifestation of the stress that I’m suppressing during my waking hours. It would be counter-productive of me to deny those fears. They’re real and natural enough.

And, as unsettling as they are in the moment, dreams are all they are and it’s healthy to let my subconscious work through my fears and give them an outlet so that they don’t paralyse me while I’m awake.

Not just me?

But it’s not just me that’s having the nightmares, right? If I’m having them, our children probably are on some level too.

I think my job as a parent is twofold. Firstly, it’s to prevent these nightmares, as horrible as they are, from hampering my ability to make good decisions to keep our family safe. And secondly, it’s to be aware that our kids, who are perhaps less able to themselves from being overwhelmed, may be having the exact same nightmares. They may not talk about them. They may appear to be perfectly fine on the surface. But underneath it all there may be deep turmoil and trauma, and they may struggle to find the words to voice them.

So much of our focus so far in this crisis has been about staying alert to developing coronavirus symptoms and protecting our physical health. But the threat to our mental well-being is steadily increasing the longer this situation lasts. These are deeply unsettling and stressful times and it’s important to acknowledge the long-term impact of what we are all experiencing. We may feel and look as if we are in control when we’re awake. But our unconscious betrays our true fears when we sleep.

There’s a delicate balance to strike between scaring the kids and helping them to articulate and rationalise their fears. And the right approach will depend on the age, maturity, curiosity and personality of the individual child. But I would suggest that it’s better to create some safe time and space to gently explore and address how our children are dealing with the current situation now than it is to deal with the fallout later.

I should probably have started doing this before – but I’m going to start now.


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