Recession-related dreams on the upswing


House foundations are crumbling in our dreams. Instead of the proverbial sheep guiding our sleep journey, dangerous thugs lurk in the shadows of our minds, and barriers block escape.

Some people, laid off or fearing job loss, dream they’re suddenly clueless about familiar work tasks or tortured by competitive co-workers who have morphed into monsters.

Welcome to the recession, sleep edition.

It’s inevitable, says Deirdre Barrett, a clinical psychologist who teaches at Harvard Medical School and is the editor of Dreaming, the leading professional journal in the field. “We dream about what concerns us when we’re awake. In bad times, that is likely to be about financial security.” Such concerns loom large for many Americans in the wake of more than 8.5 million jobs that have been lost since this recession began, an unemployment rate of 9.4% — 12.4% in California — plus more than 2.9 million homes in foreclosure.


Barrett has noticed an upswing in recession-related dreams in her research, private practice and interactions with the public. Other therapists, leaders of dream groups (venues where people gather to swap dreams and garner insights) and those who monitor websites where dreams are recorded report the same.

Recession-related dreams feature cracked foundations and walls in homes, and interlopers moving in. Los Angeles psychiatrist Judith Orloff describes a patient who panicked after her husband — breadwinner for her and their three young children — was laid off in 2009. The couple got far behind in mortgage payments and other bills. The woman dreamed she found strangers living in her house, and she couldn’t get in. “Then the strangers turned into aliens. It reminded her of the movie ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers,’” Orloff says. “Home in a primal way is where you can go to feel safe, so even if people aren’t afraid of foreclosure, a threat to your home in dreams can [represent] a threat to your basic security, which a lot of people are feeling now.”

Work is a key source for this security (or lack thereof), so it’s no surprise many dreams are set on the job or with co-workers. Sonia D’Alarcao, 40, of Bridgewater, Mass., heard in November 2009 that severe budget cuts could force the axing of jobs the following June at the nonprofit agency where she works. “For months I had dreams questioning my value or trying to argue that I was valuable,” says D’Alarcao. One memorable scene was a yard sale at which D’Alarcao brought the nonprofit’s chief financial officer baskets of varied sizes to hold flowers, urging the CFO to use the most expensive flower — an orchid — if she chose the smallest basket.

“It was about something of high value being in a small container,” says D’Alarcao, who is 5 feet, 1 inch.

In another part of the dream, she didn’t have enough cash for knickknacks, as some of her coins were useless old Portuguese money. (She is part Portuguese.) “It’s not having the right currency, not being good enough.”

Does any of this mean much beyond the obvious — that, as Barrett notes, people dream of what is on their minds? Survivors of traumas such as rape, a severe accident or an attack often dream about tidal waves overwhelming them and other emotion-charged images. A large catalog of dreams and dreamers collected in the 1996 book “Finding Meaning in Dreams: A Quantitative Approach” reveals that a strong interest in playing a sport can prompt athletic-themed dreams, that someone very close to family members will tend to dream of family, and so on.


But some psychologists and researchers think such dreams may do more than simply mirror: They may serve us psychologically by illuminating what’s really bothering us and, perhaps, suggest avenues of solution that hadn’t occurred to our wakeful brains.

Though nobody has published a scientific study to see how helpful dreams are in dealing with recession-created problems, there is suggestive research on how dreams can aid or sabotage people during another life crisis: divorce.

Rosalind Cartwright, professor emeritus at the Rush University Medical Center’s graduate program in neuroscience, tracked the dreams of more than 300 men and women undergoing divorce in a series of sleep lab studies over 27 years. People commonly had negative dreams about their former partners. But a pattern emerged: Those who were depressed were least likely to be depressed one year post-separation if they had dreams after the split-up that became more positive as the night wore on. Their positive mood in the morning carried over through the next day.

That doesn’t mean they buried their fury: Men and women who recovered best actually had dreams showing stronger emotions, such as anger, about their exes. But they also took more active roles in their dreams and wove in memories that felt similar — for example, of earlier abandonment experiences. Linking past challenges with the present one may help dreamers recover by showing that they have survived similar crises that felt somewhat like this one, Cartwright says.

Further suggestive evidence that dreams might affect recovery from trauma — for good or ill — comes from a study of 39 injured survivors of life-threatening accidents. A couple of months after their accidents, those who had continued to dream about the traumatic event showed the most severe post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, whereas others who couldn’t recall dreams or dreamed about different topics were in better mental health, says psychiatrist Thomas Mellman of Howard University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C. “This suggests it may help to process trauma if people dream in more metaphoric ways or don’t recall dreams at all,” he says. “Dreams that keep you stuck in the actual incident don’t seem to be adaptive.”

Such studies don’t, of course, prove that the dreams actively helped. But those who study dreams note that the brain in REM sleep (when most dreams occur) is in a somewhat different state: The visual cortex is much more active. At the same time, there’s less activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, the seat of planning, conventional assumptions and censorship. This different state might facilitate new ways of thinking about problems.


“Focused waking thought is not what we need all the time. It sometimes gets us into a channel or rut … our thinking is stuck and can’t make the broad imaginative leaps sometimes required,” says Dr. Ernest Hartmann, a Tufts University psychiatry professor and pioneering dream researcher.

Walter Berry, who leads a weekly dream group in West Los Angeles, says he’s seen these leaps occur overnight. A member of the group, a middle-aged secretary who’d been laid off, described a recurring dream in 2009 about former co-workers deriding and torturing her. Her tormenters turned into monsters, and in one dream she asked them, “Why are you here?” They said, “We just want to show you where to go.”

The monsters led her into a long corridor that ended in a desert with beautiful cacti and a nice house for her to live in. She began to think of leaving L.A. for the first time. After greatly expanding her online job search, she landed a job in Phoenix that was better than the one she’d lost. “The dream expanded her horizons,” Berry says.

Despite the lack of hard scientific evidence, dream researchers think dreams could hold a trove of insights for people battered by the economy. Wakeful attention and overnight dreaming “are collaborative and interdependent,” says Cartwright. Both, she says, can help guide our behavior wisely.