Feel Like COVID-19 Is Invading Your Dreams? You're Not Alone

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Terrible dreams? Can't sleep? Blame COVID-19. (Anna Vignet/KQED)

I'm standing in front of a stage, and right in front of me is country music superstar Dolly Parton. She's performing a concert, and invites me on stage to sing her hit song "Jolene" with her.

Flattered by the offer, I joined her on stage prepared to show off my vocal talents when — to my surprise and horror — I can't remember a single word.

Humiliated, I tried again. But no matter how many times I opened my mouth to sing, no sound comes out.

And then I woke up.

Since the pandemic began, people around the world have taken to sites like Google and Twitter saying they seem to be dreaming more frequently and remembering the dreams with acute detail.

For some, the dreams have unearthed long-forgotten places and experiences.

"I haven't waited tables in maybe 30 years, but I've definitely been having waitressing dreams," said Juliet Hope.

For others, the pandemic has brought on a wide variety of vivid nightmares.

"Recently, I had a dream that I traveled back in time to 2013 to warn a friend about the global pandemic occurring in 2020," said Raymond Pun. "However, I also knew this friend would die, unexpectedly, in 2014 and would not live in the 2020 timeline."

While the experience of increasingly vivid dreams and nightmares may add even more confusion and stress in uncertain times, don't fret. Experts say that disrupted or unusual sleep patterns is to be expected right now.

"We're in a unique time," said Aric Prather, an associate professor of psychiatry at UCSF and the director of the behavioral sleep research program. "People are experiencing a level of stress and uncertainty that is fairly unprecedented ... and that type of anxiety and angst doesn't end when we close our eyes."

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Where are these dreams coming from?

It may feel like you're dreaming more, but Prather said it's more likely that you're able to remember the dreams with more clarity.

Most people experience dreaming-sleep in the second half of the night, when your sleep is less deep. "And so there's a tendency to have more awakenings or intermittent light sleep," he said.

If you wake up during this time — especially if you're experiencing a "high-intense, negative, affective dream" — you may be more likely to remember it.

It may also be that our bodies are also responding to the coronavirus pandemic in unseen ways.

"We know that when people get acutely stressed, you can narrow your focus and remember things that are particularly relevant," Prather said. "It could be that, during this time period, our brains are kind of on high alert and tagging [relevant] things more frequently. And this is resulting in remembering our dreams more vividly."

And then, there's just your mind trying to process everything that's happening in this unprecedented time.

"Sleep serves a lot of different functions," Prather said. "And one of [them] is trying to make sense of what happened during our day."

What if I can't get to sleep at all?

While some may be experiencing evenings full of evocative stories or horrifying nightmares, others say they've been experiencing prolonged periods of insomnia.

"Insomnia is already really prevalent in our population, but is only growing as a consequence of the amount of stress that people are experiencing," Prather explained.

Prather said there are ways to take control of that stress and insomnia during these troubling times.

How to get a better night's sleep

  • Unplug and unwind: Set aside a time each night for when you're going to stop checking the news, stop checking social media and begin getting into your bedtime routine.
  • Practice relaxing activities: Stretching, taking a warm shower, watching TV that's not too engaging. "That will help your body and brain begin to kind of know that we're moving into the night and starting to relax," Prather said.
  • Sleep when you're sleepy: This may seem obvious, but don't go to bed until you're actually tired. Don't force yourself to try to fall asleep if you don't feel tired.
  • Don't toss and turn: If you've been laying in bed for 30 minutes or more and you still can't fall asleep, don't force it. Prather recommends you get up and practice a quiet activity until you're sleepy again.
  • Maintain a good relationship with your bed: "Oftentimes people with insomnia spend a lot of time tossing and turning in bed, and your body gets confused about what it's supposed to be doing there," Prather said. You want to make sure your brain associates your bed with sleep, not restlessness. So if you can't sleep, get out of bed!
  • Find your routine: COVID-19 has upended our lives in numerous ways, including messing with our sleep cycle. Prather recommends that you "structure your day in a way that protects your night" by following general best practices: "being active, not napping, reducing caffeine use, reducing alcohol use in the evening."


And if you're still plagued by constant, stressful dreams? Here are a few things you can do:

  • Journal throughout the day: While it may be helpful to write down what you're dreaming, it can also be cathartic to write down your worries and anxieties throughout the day. That way you can get them out of your system before you go to bed and they have a place to live.
  • Schedule time to worry: "One of the things that most commonly happens to people with insomnia is that, for whatever reason, it seems like the middle of the night is the best time to try to solve all the world's problems," Prather said. Instead, he recommends setting aside some intentional time during the day to worry.
  • Meditate: Prather said meditation can be a great tool for increasing your parasympathetic nervous system, which is essential for falling asleep and staying asleep and may help combat negative dreams.

Last, whether you're dreaming about Dolly Parton or the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, Prather said we shouldn't place unnecessary weight or importance on the content of our dreams.

"People that have recurrent nightmares due to traumas and things like that, that's certainly something that should be taken seriously. But, you know, the content of our dreams are fascinating and mystical and often random," Prather said. "I think it's better to just kind of reflect and maybe smile about the strange things that you dream, versus getting worked up and investing a lot of time and effort to try to uncover what is being held there under the subconscious level."

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