This is why your dreams (and sleep) are so weird during the COVID-19 crisis

The novel coronavirus has effectively interrupted any means of normalcy in the lives of millions of Americans – and it’s also messing up sleeping cycles, too.

From interrupted sleep patterns to odd dreams, the COVID-19 crisis has created the perfect anxiety and stress-induced cocktail to stymie much-needed rest during the public health crisis and economic turmoil.

A recent survey found over 76% of Americans said their sleep was affected by the on-going pandemic. The study, completed by SleepStandards, found the main culprits keeping Americans up at night were feeling anxious about what’s going on around them (48%), worrying about loved ones (26%), and just plain loneliness (23%). More than half of the survey’s respondents said they’re sleeping at least one less hour every night compared to before the COVID-19 outbreak, while just over 27% are missing about two hours of shuteye daily.

Not getting enough sleep can negatively affect you not only mentally, but physically as well. Harvard’s Women’s Health Watch found that lack of sleep can inhibit concentration and moodiness, but also alter our metabolism and potentially our weight. Lack of sleep can also harm cardiovascular health and even alter immune function.

To get a sense as to why Americans are suffering from sleep disruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic, Ladders spoke with two sleep experts to help explain why sleeping might be so difficult right now.

Why are my dreams so vivid during the pandemic?

Having dreams that seem like reality before waking up in the middle of the night wondering what the heck just went on? It’s likely due to anxiety and stress caused during the pandemic, according to Beth Malow, MD, a professor of neurology and pediatrics and director of the sleep disorders division at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Malow said she’s heard about wacky dreams from patients recently including one where someone was disinfecting cardboard. Think about it: Disinfecting has become a top priority of all Americans in the fight against COVID-19, and as Malow explains, it’s because of what we think about during the day. But the increase in the amount of dreams also has another cause.

“We are sleeping in more,” Malow told Ladders. “Dream sleep is toward morning. We’re not waking ourselves up with our alarm clocks to get ready for work the same way we were. We’re going to have more dreams. In some cases, it’s a good thing because we are getting more sleep but part of sleep is dreams. We may very well be allowing ourselves to have these dreams compared to if we were sleep-deprived like most of us were before COVID-19.”

To better explain why our dreams may be more vivid, Philip Gehrman, associate professor of Clinical Psychology in Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, told Ladders that it isn’t so much that our dreams have changed, but we are remembering them more because we aren’t sleeping as deeply. Gehrman explained that new information in memory is stored in the hippocampus, which plays a huge role in learning and memory.

“The hippocampus is usually inactive during sleep. When we have dreams, we don’t normally remember them because that part of the brain is not awake enough to store that information in memory,” Gehrman said. “Usually, we only remember dreams if we wake up at the end of the dream. It doesn’t even have to be long enough that we are aware that we remember waking up, but it could be that our brain becomes partially awake enough for the hippocampus to become active and store the information in memory.”

Can your commute actually benefit your sleep?

It’s been a welcoming change for most to not have an annoying commute during the COVID-19 pandemic. With businesses forced to move to remote working locations, many Americans can work in the comfort of their homes which seems like the future of work. But without a commute (walking from your bedroom to a home office doesn’t count), a vital piece of your day is missing and is contributing to stress levels, Gehrman said.

“Most people — including myself — are thrilled to not have to commute to work,” explained Gehrman. “But oftentimes that commute, especially on the way home, is an opportunity to digest what happened over the course of the workday to separate work from home. Without that separation, I don’t think that’s the only thing contributing to stress levels, but I think that’s one of the factors.”

Like commutes, our lack-of-routine is not only throwing off when we should exercise or eat dinner but it’s also changing the way we sleep. For some, it could be going to bed earlier while rising earlier, while others may be experiencing general difficulty in sleep, which can cause anxiety and stress.

“When I talk to my patients who are having more trouble sleeping, they bring that up over and over again — their kids are home, their homeschooling, and they’re not getting up like they normally would for work,” Malow said. “Their whole wave cycle is off. In some ways, it’s a good thing that the cause is a change in a routine because that’s something we can help people by trying to put structure back into their days.”

Malow recommends that those having trouble sleeping act as if they are actually going home from work by stopping working and doing things they would normally do to unwind.

How to get the best sleep during COVID-19 pandemic

The key to a better night’s sleep right now might be structure, according to Malow.

If you’re going to bed earlier or later than usual, make sure you follow that pattern. On weekends, it’s fine if you want to sleep a little later, but she suggests no more than an hour and a half later than you would during the workweek.

“Try to keep that schedule because the more regular you are, your body is going to know when to wake up and go to bed,” she said about structure.

Malow also said to watch how much alcohol you are drinking. Not only has alcohol usage been linked to increasing the chances of getting COVID-19, but many people are drinking more in isolation especially during the workday. Thirty-eight percent of New Yorkers admitted to boozing while working remotely in a recent survey, with over 1 in 3 respondents saying they are likely to drink more alcohol in isolation.

“I think we’re all stressed and we think that wine will break up the monotony,” she said. “People have these virtual happy hours with their colleagues and bring out their glass of wine or beer. Alcohol can be very deceptive. It can put you to sleep, but then you wake up when it starts wearing off. Watch all of that.”

Both Malow and Gehrman stressed exercising as a method for reducing anxiety and stress, whether it’s simply going for a walk or doing an exercise inside your home. They also suggested turning off the news right before you get to bed and connecting with others virtually.

Gehrman also suggested putting more space between work and normal life by putting a sheet over their work station.

“They are mentally separating work from the rest of the day,” he said.