Fever dreams.

Is there such a thing as a fever dream? Are the dreams we have during a fever significantly different from our usual dreams?

While many people report no change in their dreams during a fever, others have noticed specific patterns, and research tends to support some common themes. Let’s explore:

A common fever dream theme is spatial distortion.

A common fever dream theme is spatial distortion: spaces changing size, walls moving, solid objects melting. Pretty scary if you’re caught up in a dream room that’s moving and melting around you! I’ve spoken to many people over the years who have a specific, personal distortion dream that comes up every time they have a fever, a unique dream they remember from childhood. It’s as if their dreaming brain equates fever with a specific childhood fever dream and rolls it out on cue.

Perhaps the dream objects melting represent the feverish feeling that your body is melting. The dream distortions and movements may reflect the dizzy spells that come with fever, and the way that a fever can distort your vision and other senses while awake. Awake, the room may spin during a fever, colours may merge, sounds may distort, and the fever’s sweat may prickle and tickle your skin, perhaps giving the feeling of your boundaries – walls – moving or collapsing in on you.

Dreams process your waking life experiences of the last 1-2 days, and compare these to similar past experiences, either strengthening old memories or replacing them with newer ones. Your adult dreams during a fever may compare your recent fever experiences to your childhood ones, and make a match: similar experience, similar dream.

Another common fever dream theme is being threatened by dogs, insects, or – just to up the ante – terrorists.

As you can probably guess, these dream dramas might reflect the very real threat to your body of the viruses or bacteria that have invaded your system, the ‘dogs, insects, and terrorists’ that your immune system is fighting, and that your fever is trying to burn. This theme ties in with the distortion theme, the feeling that your boundaries (the walls in the distorting room) are melting or changing, no longer giving you a sense of protection. I’ve already mentioned the way a feverish sweat can tickle your skin, so it’s easy to see how your dreaming mind might process this experience as insects crawling all over you.

Dreams of being threatened by dogs, insects, terrorists, or home intruders commonly come up in non-fever situations too. They were common themes during the early days of Covid, reflecting people’s fears of invasion by the Covid virus, as well as their discomfort, in many cases, being in lockdown space with family or flatmates who may ‘get under your skin’ or irritate, bite, bark at you, or generally intrude upon your personal boundaries. Covid or no Covid, this dream theme is also common when people are experiencing difficulties in setting their personal boundaries. It can also appear during the early stages of invasion of a bacteria or virus before you notice symptoms. Such a dream can help to alert you to a possible cold, flu – or fever.

Another common fever dream theme is difficulty breathing, suffocation, pain, or nausea.

These may be straightforward reflections of your physical symptoms, although you might also have these themes in non-fever dreams when you are feeling emotionally or mentally suffocated by a situation or processing emotional or mental pain.

As always, when exploring dreams, there’s no one ‘quick fix’ dream dictionary interpretation you can apply, even for those dream themes we all share from time to time. Our dreams express our experiences using symbols created by our unique, individual minds, so to understand our dreams we need to use tools and techniques that help us to understand those personal symbols and dream dramas.

Some researchers suggest that fever dreams tend to be more emotionally intense, negative, and bizarre than non-fever dreams. While this may be true for some people, these are also the hallmarks of dreams processing challenging emotions, unresolved issues, and deeply unconscious feelings and perceptions that seem quite foreign to us.

Fever can disrupt REM sleep, and some researchers suggest this can cause some of the bizarre nature of fever dreams. Some people notice they tend to become lucid during fever dreams: this may be due to the fever or scary dreams making them more wakeful during dreaming.

Scary dreams can wake you up, and fevers tend to disrupt sleep too – so these increased awakenings during a fever may lead you to feel that you’re dreaming more than usual, or that you’re having scarier dreams.

Finally, we often succumb to sickness when our immune defences are low, when we’re stressed physically, mentally, or emotionally. The dream you have, when sick, may reflect more than your physical symptoms. Such dreams frequently explore the deeper roots of the sickness: why you are stressed, why you may be struggling, at some level, with keeping your physical, mental, and emotional boundaries intact. Such dreams can be immensely helpful in providing deeper insight into your stress and how to better manage it through behavioural techniques or addressing unresolved issues that are keeping you stressed.

You may not be in the best frame of mind to explore your dreams during a fever but write down a few key words to remind you of your dream, or record it as a voice memo, and revisit it once the fever has gone. Interpreting such dreams may help you to avoid future sickness as well as improve your waking life situation.

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Jane Teresa Anderson

Graduating with an Honours degree in Zoology specialising in developmental neurobiology from the University of Glasgow, dream analyst and dream therapist Jane Teresa Anderson has been researching dreams since 1992, and developing and teaching dream alchemy practices that shift perspective and reprogram unconscious limiting beliefs. Jane Teresa is a multi-published author (her latest book is her debut fiction, NINTH LIFE), and is a frequent guest in the media. She is also host of the long-running podcast, 'The Dream Show with Jane Teresa Anderson', and offers her online study and certificate courses through The Dream Academy.