Sleep Archives - Embodied Living

There are many reports of people having more frequent and more vivid and unusual dreams during this pandemic. Whilst I personally haven’t seen much of a change (mine are always offbeat), I began to wonder why this increase in COVID dreams might be the case for others.

The main function of dreams

I have always been interested in dreams. However, since studying psychoanalysis during the past year, I have more understanding of the depth that dreams contain. Freud called dreams the ‘royal road to the unconscious’ and said that the main function of dreaming is to keep us asleep.

During a dream, content from our unconscious can be presented in a way that is acceptable or digestible to the more conscious part of our mind. This partly explains why dreams can seem so weird. To ensure this presentability, our mind codes our dreams with symbols and other content is switched to ensure that the dream gets past our internal censor. Remember, the unconscious mind is far from middle class!

Night terrors – when dreams fail

If this process fails, we end up in a night terror and are woken from the dream. This is a sign that our capacity to dream has been overwhelmed by the indigestible stuff from the unconscious. This might partly explain the nature of our COVID dreams.

Creative acts

Freud said “ the function of a dream is fulfilment of a wish to appease a worry. When this works, an anxiety is satisfied, and you can sleep”. This is how dreams keep us asleep. Clever, eh? Today, we have elaborated on this understanding and dreams are seen as creative acts of psychic work to resolve conflicts or challenges, and even come up with something new. As a chemistry student many years ago, I remember being told about Kekule’s dream of a serpent devouring its tail (the ancient alchemical symbol of the ouroborus) which lead to his discovery of the benzene ring.

Understanding our dreams

However, these are not the only reasons to understand our dreams. Dreams are made of darker stuff sometimes, a wish to satisfy an instinct from the darkness of the Id. And our id holds the most ‘terrible’ instincts, even of ‘murderous’ intent. I am talking of the baby’s rage for a withholding breast. On thing is certain though, dreams have very personal meanings and you cannot look them up in a dream dictionary to understand them. Whilst there may be universal symbols at play within them, even these have deeply personal relevance.

Multiple layers of meaning

For example, I recently had an extremely upsetting dream that involved a snake. In part of the dream, the snake was cut into many pieces that were still alive and crawling around the floor. This dream would have different meanings for others, especially with such an ancient symbol of a serpent. However, I own a pet snake which I love dearly, and I have also taken up carving as an art form. One dream has multiple layers of meaning. But one (superficial) meaning of this dream for me, was a wish to not harm my pet whilst I am carving. It was a warning which alleviated this worry.

Why are we having covid dreams?

Overtly it seemed to me that the increase in vivid and strange COVID dreams was because of the trauma of COVID-19 that is around us on a daily basis. The content of dreams is often influenced by our day or recent events on our life – Freud called these top down dreams. Others are more ‘bottom up’ and come direct from the subconscious.

Knowing this explains our covid dreams another way. With less going on in our daily lives, more bottom up material is coming from the depths of our unconscious mind (if it can get past the censor in unusual ways) which is just weirder and more vivid. Freud tells us:

“Every dream that is in the process of formation makes a demand upon the ego for the satisfaction of an instinct, if the dream originates from the id, for a solution of a conflict, the removal of a doubt or the forming of an intention if the dream originates from a residue of preconscious activity from waking life. The sleeping ego is however focused on the wish to remain asleep. It feels this demand as a disturbance and seeks to get rid of it. The ego succeeds in doing this by what appears to be an act of compliance; it meets the demand with what is, in the circumstances, the harmless fulfilment of a wish and so gets rid of it.”

Interpreting dreams

So what chance do we have of making sense of such weirdness? It’s not easy, as you might guess. Despite what the abundance of dream dictionaries and the like seem to tell us. The manifest content is the story we remember and write down or tell our therapist. Yet it is the ‘latent’ content which we need to understand, the hidden message in the dream. By understanding this we have clues to our unconscious conflicts that, in a process like psychotherapy, can greatly aid in our self-development and progress.

To search for the hidden messages, here are a few tips:

  1. Look out for displacement – this is where the emphasis is moved from one item in the dream to another. So that something that seems meaningless is given great focus or there is serious anxiety in something bland
  2. Condensation – the free associations and the links that the dreamer is encouraged to make when thinking about the dream. Or perhaps noticing the play on words in dreams
  3. Secondary revision – how we wrap up the story of the dream (and maybe distort it). I did this with my snake dream (there was more to it).
  4. Symbols (considerations of representability) – this is the visual way metaphor and simile are represented in dreams (a way of by-passing the censor). It is usually an item that represents something completely different. But remember, these are often very individual.

Example dream

Maybe it would help with a recent example from a client. (I have permission, though am keeping all detail anonymous). My client dreamed he was walking down a mountain side. The path was winding and rocky and with big boulders and gaps to navigate precariously. The client found himself with a baby, there were onlookers who seemed to be family and friends and who were not threatening. The client had a dilemma – he wanted to get safely down the mountainside to the base, he wanted to do it for himself but in a way that kept the baby safe. In the dream was distracted by some beautiful pattern in the stones and rocks. The only way he could do it was to hand the baby over to the onlookers, for a moment while he negotiated certain rocks and treacherous parts. But he did not feel he could trust the onlookers with the baby. He wished he could trust them enough to hold the baby for a moment.

Mountain dreams

Overtly the client thought this dream represented a difficult patch in life that he was trying to navigate. But let’s look a bit more deeply, bearing in mind I am no dream expert. The client was going down a mountain, which might represent descent into the work into the unconscious that he was undertaking in therapy. There were onlookers who were friendly. Dreams often reverse things, so this could represent people in his life who he perceives do not have such benign or neutral intent. There was a baby that he was responsible for.

Beginning an interpretation of covid dreams

Notice how the client got more fixated on the beauty or preciousness of the pattern in the stones on the path. This might signify that the baby was something precious to him. What does the baby signify? It might be a symbol. My client is a young man and not yet a father, the baby might symbolise something precious to him. On one level, the baby might represent me, his therapist, and his wish to protect me (he recognised feeling something like this towards me at times, which is not uncommon in the client-therapist transference). I am something ‘precious’ to him and am going on a descent into his unconscious mind with him, he might fear for me of what we might find there.

Freud said that aspects or objects in dreams are aspects of our own mind. Babies are vulnerable but more importantly, dependent. So, given that my client was entering a very important phase in therapy where he was becoming more dependent on a benign caregiver (a vital and delicate part of the therapeutic process), the baby might represent this dependent part of himself. This of course is himself as a baby. And he fears of letting this baby go to others (me the therapist) whom he can’t trust in this crucial and delicate phase.

Play on words

Of course, another layer could be the play on words: in the double bind he experiences in the dream, he is ‘left holding the baby’. Which is a phrase that means “you are put in a situation where you are the sole person responsible for something, often in an unfair way because other people fail or refuse to take responsibility for it”. This might relate to people in his life and general pattern currently and in the past.

Layer upon layer

Remember that there are multiple layers of meaning in a single dream, and we can keep unpacking it. And in addition, the meaning may be different at different times in our life. Then there are traumatic dreams, which are less useful. Rather like the trauma response itself, these dreams repeat and repeat, often in very disturbing ways. This traumatic repetition is an effort to re-experience the trauma so that we can finally take control. However, it often leads to more trauma.

Hopefully this gives you a taste of the power of dreams to help us navigate our problems in life. In psychotherapy dreams can be a useful tool to initiate dialogue with the unreachable unconscious. Through this we can begin to understand the unconscious conflicts and anxieties that disturb our happiness. But there is no one size fits all approach. The therapist needs to do careful and informed work with the client to extract the personal meanings from dreams.


More help during COVID-19

Read more about what might help you cope in this pandemic.

Have you ever fancied achieving a blissful state of altered consciousness without having to rely on a trip of the chemical kind? Do you want to expand the capacity of your mind? Learn without effort? Reduce your inhibitions and improve your memory? Did you know that you can reach this altered state of consciousness and achieve all this by simply lying down for 20 mins?

The best sleep you will ever get

The literal translation of Yoga nidra is ‘yogic sleep’. Yoga Nidra is an ancient tantric method which can open new capacities of mind. It was brought to the West by the Indian guru, Swami Satyananda Saraswati, in the 60s. We are not talking about any other practice that may be called the same thing. When I refer to yoga nidra in this article and in my practice I am talking about the systematic practice developed in the Bihar school of India.

This system of yoga nidra relates to a deep sleep state where the mind is deeply relaxed but with a wide open awareness and it is one of the deepest of all meditations, and brings an incredible calmness, quietness and clarity.

Supreme stillness

Yoga Nidra is a practice which leads awareness through many levels of mental process to a state of supreme stillness, receptivity and insight. Like all yoga practices it is the persistent practise that brings about real transformation and joy. It can be considered a form of meditation. However, in meditation you remain in the waking state of consciousness and gently focus the mind whilst allowing thought patterns, emotions and sensations to come and go. In comparison, in Yoga Nidra you leave the waking state, go beyond the dreaming state into a state similar to deep sleep, whilst remaining awake. It is a very powerful state for your brain to be in!

Yoga nidra is typically led by a qualified and trained teacher and lasts 15 mins to half an hour. You lie on the floor your back or, for some practices, sit in a meditation posture. And mentally follow the instructions that you teacher talks you through.

Changing brain waves

The practice induces brain waves that are predominantly delta (0.5 to 3.5 cycles per sec): the state of deep stillness and profound openess. When you first try yoga nidra you will experience the profound relaxation that the practice brings about. And you will almost certainly fall asleep! In fact, if you suffer from disturbed sleep patterns yoga nidra is a great way to balance and restore sleep patterns. However, at some point your practice will deepen and you will experience a moment, like a flash, where you experience the breath-taking depths of yoga nidra.

As in many yoga practices, you need to be patient. There is no right or wrong. If you fall asleep that is fine: and probably what you need at that time! Whilst this is not the ultimate state that yoga nidra aims for, it is certainly of benefit to mental and physical health and encourages the brain to slow down from its active aroused beta state (14 to 30 cycles per sec) to a calmer alpha wave range (8 to 13 cps).

The stages of yoga nidra

The methods that take you up the ultimate yoga nidra state are, in themselves, very relaxing and help to train the mind. The key stages of this technique are:

  1. progressive relaxation
  2. body awareness
  3. rotation of consciousness
  4. summoning of emotions and states
  5. control of physical states
  6. visualisation
  7. chakra work
  8. breath awareness
  9. sankalpas (affirmations) – a powerful method of reshaping your personality and experience of the world for the better


The term ‘yoga nidra’ actually refers to the state of consciousness that is achieved in the ultimate practice of the technique but it is often used erroneously to refer to the various methods listed above. It is the end state not the method that is eponymous.

Benefits of yoga nidra

The overall benefits of yoga nidra include:

  • total relaxation of all systems of the body
  • nervous and hormonal system efficiency
  • enhanced health
  • the ultimate way to de-stress (yoga nidra is HUGELY beneficial for the alleviation of stress)
  • elminate insomnia
  • mental and emotional relaxation


Yoga nidra in education

Educational innovators such as Dr Georgi Lozanov, a Bulgarian psychologist and the founder-director of the Institute of Suggestopedy in Sofia, are now utilizing yoga nidra to create an atmosphere in which knowledge is gained without effort. Dr Georgi Lozanov, recognizing that the state of active and relaxed awareness in students awakens the desire to learn, improves memory and reduces inhibition, has devised methods for teaching/learning of foreign languages that are three to five times faster, with the use of relaxation and music. As the class proceeds, the students effortlessly assimilate an enormous amount of knowledge, which, under conventional classroom conditions, would surely precipitate strain, tiredness and loss of concentration.

Yoga nidra is being tapped internationally as a means of improving conscious recall thereby increasing memory function. Yoga nidra is a promising technique that will revolutionize the teaching procedures in the future by enabling students to assimilate knowledge without much effort. There are students who want to learn, but their conscious mind is weak or unreceptive. Such children with learning disabilities can benefit from yoga nidra by absorbing knowledge through the subconscious mind. Such children can be taught by transmitting symbolic forms directly into his subconscious.

Reducing illness

Yoga Nidra has also been scientifically proven to reduce the ‘psychosomatic’ illnesses caused by the general under currents of tension that we live with:

  • diabetes
  • migraines
  • asthma
  • ulcers
  • digestive problems


Yoga nidra will help you reach a deep state of releasing, relaxing and letting go: but really its bigger benefit is an emptying of oneself into wonder.

Sue Tupling of Embodied Living is qualified to teach and practice yoga nidra.

We sleep to restore and rest the body and mind. If we can learn to sleep better there are many benefits. The brain organises and integrates memories during sleep. And dreaming sleep can be an important way for the unconscious to process events and difficult emotions. Lack of sleep can affect our daytime functioning, hormonal balance, appetite and immune system.

Adequate sleep is a key part of a healthy lifestyle and can benefit our heart health, mental health and even our weight! All mammals, including us humans, have internal clocks that tell us when we need to sleep; they are sensitive to light so that we feel alert when the sun is up and drowsy when it is down. We are the sleepiest between midnight and 6am and between 1pm and 3pm.

How much sleep do we need?

  • Babies – 16 hours per day
  • Children – 9-16 hours per day
  • Teenagers – 9 hours per day
  • Adults – Most need 7-8 hours a day, but some may need as few as 5 or as many as 10
  • Pregnant women need more sleep than usual
  • Older adults may sleep for short periods of time or more often

Good sleep is deep and restful.Your brain waves are in alpha state before you drop into sleep and in theta/delta when you are asleep. Your muscles are relaxed. Your body rearranges itself once or twice each hour so your blood circulates. You spend at least two hours dreaming. Your body’s cells produce and store proteins to renew and restore all of your systems.

Tiredness on waking

Have you ever woken up and felt like you haven’t really slept even if your sleep was not interrupted? Anyone can have a sleep problem, many people accept this as normal and few people seek the help they need from their doctors.

If you don’t sleep it can seriously affect your body:

Day 1 with no sleep – You will feel tired and irritable. You may feel ‘wired’ because your body produces extra adrenalin, or you may feel slowed down because of fatigue. You may start to feel more grumpy.

Day 2 with no sleep – You will probably have trouble concentrating and your attention span will feel shorten considerably. You are likely to make more mistakes at work. You shouldn’t drive or operate heavy machinery. You will certainly be feeling grumpier now. Lack of sleep causes our brains to overreact to the negative, when we are tired we lose the ability to focus on positive stimuli. In short, lack of sleep blunts the positive emotions and makes us feel more negative.

Day 3 with no sleep – Your will probably have extreme difficultly thinking clearly and you may see things that aren’t there or believe things aren’t true.

If you consistently can’t get to sleep or wake in the night and struggle to get back to sleep or if you wake too early you may have a sleeping problem.

The symptoms of a lack of sleep:

  • You wake up feeling like you didn’t get any sleep
  • You have trouble staying awake while driving
  • Your struggle to stay awake while inactive, such as watching TV
  • You yawn or blink frequently
  • You have difficulty paying attention or concentrating
  • You have disconnected thoughts or frequent daydreams
  • Your performance at work has dropped
  • You have a slow reaction time
  • You have mood swings
  • You start dreaming right away when you fall asleep

5 Top Tips to help you sleep better or get a better quality sleep:

  1. It is good to establish a bedtime routine, to calm and relax your brain as you get ready to sleep so that you don’t take those high beta waves into deep sleep with you!
  2. Learn to relax to re-balance sympathetic and para sympathetic nervous system and establish low alpha brainwaves.
  3. Exercise raises your body temperature. This counteracts your internal body clock, which lowers your temperature before bed. Make sure you don’t exercise before bedtime, allow at least two hours before bed time.
  4. Yoga and particularly yoga nidra, can help you get the best night’s sleep you have ever had.
  5. Yoga Nidra is a practice which leads awareness through many levels of mental process to a state of supreme stillness, receptivity and insight. Like all yoga practices it is the persistent practise that brings about real transformation and joy.

Anxiety can interfere with our sleep. Read more about anxiety

I have many resources on my YouTube Channel or Podcasting site to help with sleep and relaxation on my resources page.