Shreya Sen-Handley | Mothers’ dreams, and why they must be taken seriously

The climate crisis, the pandemic, this new war, are REAL, and so’s the anxiety!

What do I dream of these days? Cakes, roses, moonlight? I dream of devastating floods and fires, lost children (including my own), wars and death. I dream of loss, defeat, and global catastrophes. They assail me every single night!

Dreams? ‘Nightmares’ I submit!

It must be obvious, even to those who still dream pleasantly, that these night terrors are born of deep anxiety, born of current events.

Anxiety is defined as feelings of unease, like worry or fear, that can become constant and severe, permeating our daily lives with restlessness and worry. By day and by night.

Before the pandemic, and this new Russo-Ukrainian, potentially global, possibly nuclear, conflict, there were already an estimated 275 million people worldwide suffering from anxiety. Recent studies suggest there has been a massive spike in levels of anxiety, and the global numbers reeling from it, in these last two traumatic years.

Nor is it only those who were directly affected by Covid (which most of us were), or found themselves in the path of the murderous Taliban, or Putin’s homicidal aggression, who’ve experienced this overpowering new unease, but anyone registering and responding to the calamitous state of our world. Pandemic Brain and Headline Anxiety are unhappy offshoots of this.

“I think everyone's experiencing some degree of anxiety about what's happening in the world,” Professor of psychiatry Michael Ziffra confirmed my suspicions about my sustained nocturnal unrest, “What we’re experiencing right now is unprecedented — all this happening at once — prolonged pandemic, political turmoil, war, climate change. Long-term exposure to stressors generally worsens anxiety.”

But because there’s far too much bad news on every other front, our worsening mental health doesn’t get discussed by governments, media, or medical and scientific communities. There was an avalanche of social media posts about isolation and depression in lockdown, but they’ve petered out. We’re now all valiantly trying to project normality, good cheer, and optimism. Oh me too, but like many others I know, it’s often a façade, with the bitter truth surfacing in my dreams.

Some of us, you see, have been left with Long Covid, and almost all of us with Long Anxiety, which is not just another fallout of the pandemic, but a pandemic in its own right. With the war in Ukraine, and the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over us, as if a deadly worldwide virus wasn’t enough, not to forget the catastrophic climate disaster on the horizon, anxiety has reached a new zenith. With so much to be anxious about, yet little outlet for it, how do we cope with life?

I know of folks glued to the screens of their smartphones and TVs, incessantly watching the bad news roll in, hating every minute of it but unable to stop. There’s also panic buying which we saw so much of at the start of the pandemic, when people, especially in the west, stashed more canned food, loo roll, and sanitising gel, than they could possibly need. Now this endemic shopping is a desperate attempt at retail therapy, and the reassurance of being equipped to survive Armageddon. People have also turned to cults, religion, and groups with extreme and narrow beliefs, to help save them from the uncertainty of the wider world. Driving around my city this weekend, I noticed big, new churches promulgating obscure faiths that have sprung up in the past two years.

In me, this anxiety has undoubtedly worked its way into my dreams. And because the future looks bleak, whatever I might tell myself in waking, my nightmares converge on our younger generations. My daughter has a habit of reporting her dreams to me, and I used to tell her mine but can’t anymore. Exactly how many times can I tell my children that I dreamt we were all swept away by a towering tsunami?

In my subconscious, the climate crisis has clearly melded with parental anxiety, though in the day I’m a happy and focused mother. Parental anxieties are as old as time however. Isn’t there a meme on how having children is like letting your heart walk around outside of you, tugging at your heartstrings constantly? Perpetually hearing those emotional alarm bells blaring? Parenthood: Just another name for anxiety!

But in a week it is Mother's Day in Britain, and anxiety must be banished as we ooh over the delicious chocolate cake the children have baked, and aah over the beautiful cards they’ve drawn lovingly, wreathed in smiles these deservedly elicit. Because dreams are dreams, right? Those hoary somnolent chestnuts of failing our exams, losing one’s clothes, arriving too late, or, or being chased by Akshay Kumar (eeeek!); none of them are real, thankfully. The monsters in our nightmares are prompted by nothing more than flatulence and acidity, we’ve been assured repeatedly.

Yet, the climate crisis, the pandemic, this new war, are REAL, and so’s the anxiety! And troubled nights can bleed into our waking lives, draining us of the sense of purpose and energy we need to tackle the triggers of our disquiet; the precarious condition of our planet. Ergo, let’s eat that chocolate cake, dream our nerve-wracking dreams, and then, take them seriously.

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