As social distancing guidelines stay in effect around the country and we continue to spend more time at home to slow the spread of the coronavirus, many people are saying they're having more trouble sleeping and are experiencing more vivid dreams than usual.
On Twitter and other social media platforms, posts about extremely realistic dreams are going viral. When posters ask if others have experienced something similar, the replies are filled with people relaying their own strange dreams or recent changes to their sleeping patterns.
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The connection between stress and dreaming
Sleep experts say that dreams are often tied to stress, so it's not surprising that people would be experiencing more vivid dreams during the pandemic.
Courtney Bancroft, a psychologist based in New York City, said that patients have been reaching out to her with concerns about their sleep, and have mentioned difficulties with dreams.
"When we see heightened levels of stress, we often see heightened levels of vivid dreams happening," said Bancroft. "Our brains get flooded with all sorts of neurotransmitters and chemicals, like adrenaline and epinephrine. When they're activated, even if it's during the day, it can actually remain present while you're sleeping, and that can interrupt the regular sleep cycle a bit and cause those vivid dreams."
Joshua Tal, a psychologist who practices in New York City and New Jersey and specializes in sleep disorders, said people have been calling him for help with sleep issues as well. "In general, it's a time of global stress," he said. "We're stressing a lot of different people in a lot of different ways."
Increased levels of stress might make it difficult for someone to go to sleep and stay asleep, added Bancroft. "If you’re experiencing higher levels of stress, your ability to let your guard down and sleep normally or deeply gets impaired," she said. "Your brain is trying to keep you alert, and this is where people might have difficulty falling asleep — or more intense stress dreams."
Other ways the coronavirus pandemic may impact sleep
Tal and Bancroft said it's not just about stress. There are several other reasons why people might be having more realistic dreams than they normally do or why they might see other changes in their sleep patterns.
Bancroft suggested that disruptions in the regular sleep schedule could reduce the "sleep drive," or a person's desire for sleep.
Tal suggested that insomnia and other disruptions in the sleep schedule can cause a "restriction" in rapid eye movement sleep (aka REM), the phase of sleep when most dreaming takes place. When REM is restricted, your "body craves it," and according to Tal, this can cause an "REM rebound," which means the next time you rest you might have more REM sleep during that period — and more dreams.
Bancroft also suggested that more time spent indoors practicing social distancing and less time spent outdoors — or exercising — could lead to sleep difficulties.
Other changes in lifestyle, like dietary changes, later wake-up times, self-medicating with alcohol or medications, or eating meals at different times of day than normal could also lead to changes in sleep habits, according to both Tal and Bancroft.
Is there any way to avoid sleep problems?
There are several things you can do to help keep vivid dreams and sleep disruptions at bay and get a better night's rest, even while social distancing. Here's what Bancroft and Tal suggest:
- Try to stick to some kind of schedule throughout the day.
- Be mindful of what you're eating and drinking. (Consuming big meals, caffeine or alcohol in the hours before bed may disrupt sleep.)
- To help your brain associate lying in bed with going to sleep, avoid doing activities like working or playing video games in bed.
- Establish a pre-bedtime routine to wind down and help your brain relax.
- If you're experiencing nightmares, set up "reminders of safety" in the area where you sleep. These might include pictures, a calming fragrance or aromatherapy oil or a soothing music playlist you can listen to as you fall back to sleep.
Will the quarantine's effects on sleep and dreams be permanent?
Tal and Bancroft said that any effects of self-quarantine on people's dreams aren't likely to be long-lasting. Additionally, they said, those who attribute their sleep difficulties to the coronavirus pandemic are likely to return to normal sleeping patterns after it's under control.
Once the main stressor is alleviated, people "can usually jump right back in and sleep normally and get back into a routine," Bancroft said. "For other people, who become extremely worried and stressed about the fact that they haven't been sleeping, it leads to this separate thing of anxiety about sleep."
Bancroft added that this type of anxiety could lead to a "rupture" in the sleeping practice and trigger feelings of "loss of control," which could have longer-term effects — and should be professionally treated.
Tal said the best way to prevent such anxiety is to avoid putting too much pressure on yourself to sleep.
When you're having trouble sleeping, it’s really important to keep yourself from obsessing or worrying too much about it, said Tal. "Make sure that you get out of bed and you don’t associate the bed with the anxiety," he said. "Reserve the bed for sleep ... read something, do something that’ll get your mind off of things. At that point, it’s even better to watch a TV show or play a game."
Tal suggested that you may also want to consider seeking professional help for certain problems, such as "if you're noticing your alcohol use ... or stress levels are interrupting your sleep," or if you're having repetitive nightmares with recurring themes and images. There are treatments that can help.