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On Top of Daily Stress, COVID-19 Is Making Our Dreams Worse Too

A man with insomnia looks at the clock at dawn from the bed with concern

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Key Takeaways

  • In a survey published October 2020, more than half of respondents reported sleeping more, but 26% had nightmares.
  • Bad dreams tend to be about pandemic-related topics, like fear of becoming infected.
  • Focusing on sleep quality means establishing habits to lower stress, like adopting a mindfulness practice, experts suggest.

Although people tend to be sleeping more during COVID-19 lockdowns, many are reporting awakening more often during the night and having bad dreams when they are asleep, according to a study in Frontiers in Psychology.

Finnish researchers used crowdsourcing during the lockdown in Finland to find study participants, ending up with 4,275 respondents. Of those, 811 shared their dream content. Overall, about half reported sleeping substantially more than before the pandemic, but nearly 29% had disrupted sleep, and 26% regularly had nightmares.

Those willing to share the details of their bad dreams also shared common themes in terms of what was keeping them fitful. Not surprisingly, pandemic-specific dreams were the most reported, in 55%. Those included:

  • Becoming infected and/or managing the disease
  • Fear over lack of social distancing shown by others in the dreams
  • Elderly friends or family members in trouble

The researchers also noted that bad dreams were more frequent and vivid for those who reported an increase of stress in their everyday lives.

W. Christopher Winter, MD

There's no one strategy that works for everyone when it comes to sleep difficulties. Often, it comes down to putting a number of beneficial habits into place, like no screens before bed, plus regular workouts, plus a daily de-stress practice like meditation.

— W. Christopher Winter, MD

How Trauma Drives Nightmares

Increase in bad dreams among a population affected by fearful events is certainly not new. Previous studies have pointed out that this phenomenon occurs whenever there is a threat to public health and well-being or an alteration to everyday life.

Past research has noted a surge in nightmares during wars, terrorist attacks, earlier pandemics, and other widespread infectious diseases.

For example, a study of nearly 24,000 respondents found increased frequency of nightmares among men, especially males ages 10-29, after the terrorist attacks in New York City on September 11, 2001. Those researchers found that for some, the nightmares persisted even two years later.

Dreams tend to include events both from the preceding day (day-residue effect) as well as a week earlier (dream-lag effect). The recent research notes that this combination in an ongoing environment like the pandemic could become nightmare fuel if stress remains elevated.

Sleep Problems Means Health Problems

The recent study on dreams adds to other research over the past six months that has highlighted challenges with sleep in the midst of COVID-19.

For example, a study done by The Better Sleep Council in March compared findings to their annual January sleep study. Within that three-month timeframe, 9% more Americans described their sleep as poor or fair—for a total of 52%—and the number of people who said they regularly felt well rested dropped by 6% (from 30% to 24%).

In the short term, lack of good sleep could lead to fatigue and irritability, but it's the longer-term effects that should prompt action in pursuing healthy sleep changes. Chronic sleep disturbances have been linked to:

  • Cardiovascular issues
  • Memory problems
  • Shorter life
  • Weaker immune system
  • Higher diabetes risk
  • Lower libido
  • Balance issues

Focusing on Quality and Routine

For those who are having sleep issues, including nightmares, a greater emphasis should be put on sleep quality, and that can be achieved through several strategies, according to Christine Blume, PhD, sleep scientist at the Centre for Chronobiology in Switzerland. Try these to dispel the bad dreams and get more rest:

  • Stop reading the news and incendiary social media posts right before bed, since that can affect your levels of cortisol, the hormone related to your stress response.
  • Establish a solid bedtime and wake time, even if your work is flexible, since that can help prep your mind for sleep.
  • Consider a mindfulness or meditation practice. An app like Headspace or Calm can assist with guided visualizations.
  • Write down your anxieties and worries throughout the day so it's easier to "let them go" by bedtime, even if they're ongoing challenges.
  • Exercise regularly, since that has been shown many times to help improve sleep quality, including deep sleep.
  • Get outside first thing in the morning, since that can help your body clock to set itself correctly, paying off later that evening in more refreshing sleep.
  • Write down your dreams if they're especially disturbing and how you felt in the midst of them. Seek help from a professional to untangle any anxiety, depression, or stress you may be experiencing.

Tailor Your Approach

Actions like these will move you closer to a healthy sleep cycle, according to W. Christopher Winter, MD, President of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine, and author of "The Sleep Solution". When that happens, it can bring a greater sense of rest and reduce stress, which may help banish bad dreams.

"There's no one strategy that works for everyone when it comes to sleep difficulties," he says. "Often, it comes down to putting a number of beneficial habits into place, like no screens before bed, plus regular workouts, plus a daily de-stress practice like meditation. If you haven't found what works for you, keep trying different strategies, and if it's impacting your life in a negative way, seek help from a professional like a sleep medicine specialist."

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