Monday, May 11, 2009

Anxiety dreams and dream rehearsals

Since his debut, Luciano Pavarotti had a recurring dream: that he was still in his dressing room, in his underwear, when he heard the orchestra playing the music that introduced a big aria he was supposed to be ready to sing on stage. Waking events eventually caught up with the dream. In Paris, preparing to perform in Tosca, Pavarotti found himself in the same situation as he was in the dream, still in his underwear as the orchestra played the lead-in to his aria. The concert team had neglected to tell him that the opera was starting at 7:30 pm instead of the more usual 8:00 pm.

This incident encourages us to pause before tagging a certain type of recurring dream motif as an "anxiety dream" and putting it away in a box. An "anxiety dream" may be a rehearsal for a future situation in the dreamer's life. It may also be a rather exact preview of an event that will or will not come to pass, depending on the dreamer's ability to clarify and use the information contained in the dream. Let's remember, in looking at any dream, that the dream self is forever traveling ahead of the waking self, scouting the ways.

There are specific types of "anxiety" dream - or dream rehearsals - related to the nature of our work and life activities. If you travel a lot, you are likely to remember lots of dreams that feature problems with bags, or at check-points. Since I have a rather active events calendar, I notice that my dreams often rehearse me for lecture, conference and workshop situations. I've dreamed repeatedly of arriving on stage only to find that I have to speak on a theme or play a role that is quite different from the one that I have prepared. Such dreams are usually a great prompt to expect the unexpected and be ready to wing it.

Recently, I've been coached by the situation of my dream self in a dream in which I had to come down from a mountain to give a lecture and then pull my thoughts together in order to give a presentation that would match the interests of a specific audience.

Sometimes "performance anxiety" dreams prompt me to check the physical environment in which I will be speaking. Once I dreamed an audience could not hear me because of an incredibly noisy fan. This led me to check out the college auditorium involved (which I had never previously visited). So I was able to discover ahead of the event that a problem with the A/C system in the room would have produced the literal fulfillment of the dream, unless we were prepared to sweat in stifling heat on a midsummer day. Thanks to the dream alert, I was able to have the event switched to another space. On another occasion, I dreamed that 47 people had registered for an evening workshop I was giving at an arts center, and that among the crowd was a man who was trying to record the presentation without permission. I was uncertain about the literal-ness of this dream, because I had set a limit of 35 for participants in the corresponding event at an arts center. When I arrived on the evening of the workshop, I was informed that we had a full house, plus 12 on a waiting list, giving that dream figure of 47. Coached by my dream, I was now hyper-alert for someone with a concealed recorder, and was soon able to identify a younger man who was quite embarrassed when I confronted him and made him switch off his machine.

There are more generic motifs in "anxiety dreams" that seem to be near-universal. Who has never dreamed of being naked, or partly exposed, in public? When this theme comes up (in my own dreams or in dreams that are shared with me) one of my first questions is: What was the response of other people in the dream? Were they okay with me exposing myself? Did they even notice? If they didn't mind or didn't notice, the dream might be rehearsing me for a situation in which I will choose to reveal more of myself than I may have been in the habit of doing.

"Back in school" is another of those near-universal dream themes. If I find myself back in school - maybe needing to get to class or get ready for a test - I will ask myself where, in my waking life, am I facing a new learning assignment and a new challenge, and what do I need to study or re-learn in order to graduate this time.
Even when the content of an "anxiety" dream seems symbolic rather than literal, it is worth pausing to check for anything that might link the dream to a developing situation in ordinary life and so provide specific navigational guidance.

Pavarotti talks about life catching up with his dream of being unready for a stage appearance at


Nancy said...

This is very helpful. Just 2 days ago I dreamed I was sitting on a public toilet in full view of anyone who walked by, right after in waking life I had started to get some comments on my new blog. Yes, I was "going public" more than I had before, which I realized, but your point about people's reactions was something I hadn't thought of. In my dream some people ignored me, & some actually wanted to help me by giving me toilet paper!

Thanks also for the reminder of classroom dreams preparing us for a coming test, as I have these dreams a LOT, often about a class you're teaching. I appreciate you!

Abuladeen said...

I've had anxiety dreams about events in the future, but until now never about something that's already happened. The event occurred last week: a statewide conference I coordinate that's engaged a huge amount of my energy and attention over the past several months. While I can understand anxiety about something that hasn't happened yet, I'm not sure how to make sense of being anxious retrospectively. The dreams are like obsessive repetitions of structures-- for instance, putting events into time slots-- that seem more abstract than concrete and specific. It's as if the flow of energy directed toward the conference has nowhere else to go now that it's over. I'd be grateful for any ideas about what else these retrospective anxiety dreams might be about.