For Allison, the nightmare is a recurring one.
It’s the morning after election night and her parents’ suburban Texas home is eerily quiet. Allison, who requested her last name remain withheld, has no idea whether Donald Trump was re-elected or if Joe Biden won and, for some reason, she can’t check her phone or turn on the television to find out the election results. Undeterred, she goes about her usual morning routine, putting her dog on a leash and prepping for a walk.
She steps outside and the scene before her is chaotic.
“There are Trump flags waving and truck driving militias circling the block,” Allison told Jezebel. “Dream me realizes they’ve most likely cut internet, cable, and phone, and probably detained my parents.”
In her dream, Allison pulls her dog inside and locks herself in the bathroom as gunshots ring out in quick succession.
“It ends when I hear a loud, continuous thumping noise like a battering ram against the door,” Allison said. “I think it is apparent that either potential outcome fills me with dread. Texas is not the most ideal place to be if the race war does pop off.”
Allison’s election nightmare isn’t isolated. Von Kasey, a 22-year-old from North Carolina recently had a nightmare about a mass shooting at his polling location. Aaron Stephenson, a 29-year-old from Minnesota, had a polling place nightmare that was far less violent, but distressing.
“I’ve started to have a recurring nightmare of my ballot shredding while trying to scan it,” wrote Stephenson, who lives in Minnesota. “[I’m] walking into my polling place—even though I got my mail-in ballot—and [I’m] filling it out. Then it’s just shredding into confetti when I put it in the machine.”
Whether there is a national trend in election-induced nightmares is unclear, but as November inches closer, it seems only natural that people are experiencing an uptick in anxiety. A few weeks into covid-19 lockdown, it seemed as though everyone was experiencing intense dreams. Not necessarily nightmares, but dreams laden with unease. This phenomenon was documented in several publications, from The Washington Post, to Yale Medicine, to the paranoia peddlers at WebMD.
The assessment from the experts came down to this: Vivid dreams and nightmares are common after a time of crisis, and they might simply act as a reflection of the anxiety that hounds us during our waking hours.
The difference with Trump dreams is that, unlike the pandemic, the election still looms in the distance. Its buildup acts as a constant harbinger of doom, with each passing day disturbing the dormant bile of 2016 PTSD, made worse by daily poll numbers, obscene campaign ads, and now the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. All the while, the pandemic has brought the nation’s economic disparities to the surface. Voter suppression, the West Coast in flames, and police brutality are top news stories every week, and Trump appears uninterested in finding real solutions to all of the above.
In the 1930s, German writer Charlotte Beradt began collecting the dreams of people who, like her, were having strange dreams after Hitler’s rise to power. In 1966, she released The Third Reich of Dreams, a collection of 75 dreams from those living under Nazi rule which were, as Brandt put it, “dictated to them by dictatorship.” When the New Yorker revisited Beradt’s book in 2019, they noted that the Austrian-born psychologist Bruno Bettelheim wrote in the afterword that “the dreamer can recognize deep down, what the system is really like.”
Jezebel spoke with Dr. Meredith Broderick, a board-certified neurologist with subspecialty training in sleep disorders and behavioral sleep medicine. She has a clinic in the Pacific Northwest where patients seek help on a range of sleep issues. Broderick explained that nightmares operate on a spectrum of sorts. In nightmares, the themes are more life or death, fight or flight; think, a dream spent escaping from a murderer. But many mistake nightmares for anxiety dreams that occur during a high period of stress; think, a dream in which you’re one day away from graduating from college but suddenly realize that you actually skipped a required course for the entire semester.
While the anecdotes shared with Jezebel were a combination of the two, Broderick suspects they’re all coming from the same place.
“It’s the anticipatory anxiety of the election,” she said. “Because I don’t think a lot of us were prepared that Trump was going to get elected. And so it’s like, oh, my gosh, is that going to happen again?” People’s lives are upended and it only exacerbates their senses.
“You know, whether it’s losing your job or whether your child is now home with you and you’re schooling them... you’re just not getting the social contact you need,” Broderick said. “Having Trump as president is one thing, and then you’ve got the pandemic... people who are protesting and people who are mad about the protesting.”
In other words, a deluge of daily stressors without a conscious outlet.
“Our brains are consolidating memory and learning,” Dr. Broderick said. “And we take these experiences and store them away to learn from them and protect ourselves.”
But the task of processing what ails us is part of the problem.
“My biggest concern with voting is access,” said Monica Denham, a college student at Clark University in Atlanta. She’s having trouble sleeping. “In Georgia, there is extreme restricted access to voting. There are many counties with broken voting machines... It’s a power struggle... the chocolate city of Atlanta and the [rest of the] white farmer state.”
This isn’t to suggest that Allison, Monica, Kasey, or Stephenson are ignorant of the realities of “the system” or the white nativism mainstreamed under Trump until they dreamed them up. But their subconscious is making space for worst-case scenarios; ones that may otherwise be chided as overly pessimistic or cynical. They’re critiques of the gun violence, white mobs, and voter suppression that are part and parcel with American life. It doesn’t take a Freudian psychiatrist to understand that uncertainty and chaos created by the Trump administration is an ideal breeding ground for a subconscious riddled with these anxieties.
Twenty-two-year-old Eboni Jazzmine had a nightmare too. She was about to do a stand up set in front of a stylish, diverse audience when a white woman suddenly interrupted her and told her she couldn’t continue. The crowd shifted to a sea of white men wearing sunglasses and patriotic regalia.
“I looked on the TV and Trump won the election and [the audience was] celebrating,” Jazzmine said. “So I threw the mic at Karen and Diamond from P Valley escorted me off the stage.”
But the dream shifted, not away from terror, but rather resignation.
“We had midnight dinner watching TV at a diner,” Jazzmine continued. “Black people everywhere were agitated by how segregation got passed in the first five minutes of Trump’s dictatorship. But, as always, we joked about it.”
These nightmares may not be prophetic, but they certainly tap into the human condition. And it’s important to know that while no one can control the world around them, controlling and reducing dreams—especially terrifying recurring ones—is possible. It’s called imagery rehearsal therapy (IRT).
“We work with people to change the narrative and to change the outcome of the dream and to rehearse the dream during the day,” Dr. Broderick said. “Our goal, the outcome is that the person can change the ending of the dream. You work with the person and say, how could you change the ending of that dream or what can you do? What if that was real life? What would you do? You know, let’s give you some control of the dream instead of having the dream happen to you.”
Control is also essential to prevent these dreams from happening in the first place. We tell children not to watch scary movies before bedtime to lessen the chance of them having a nightmare. The adult equivalent may well be doom scrolling Twitter before it’s lights out. Broderick acknowledged that it’s hard to escape the chaos of the news cycle, especially for marginalized people who have the most to lose with a Trump re-election, but she suggests limiting the intake of news and opting for a more relaxing wind-down before bedtime: Instead of watching cable news or tweeting, try meditating or some yoga stretches instead.
“I tell my patients, it’s about setting healthy boundaries with this stuff, just like you would in relationships,” Broderick said.