Christina Pierpaoli Parker




Having weird dreams since COVID-19? Here's why.

Posted May 23, 2020

Usually, my dreams feel pretty elusive, but lately, I’ve had weirdly memorable ones. Some so disturbing that I won’t even attempt to describe them here. Just imagine the surrealness of a Salvador Dalí painting coupled with the feel of a Quentin Tarantino film.

 McCall Potter/Flickr
Source: McCall Potter/Flickr

I’ve had other dreams and nightmares, too. In one, I boarded a cruise ship with nothing but a roll of toilet paper, dressed head to toe in bubble wrap. In another—feeling unmistakably nightmarish to me—I slept through my telemedicine clinic, missed my patients, and got kicked out of residency. This one has stubbornly persisted most nights since switching to telemedicine.

I study and treat adult sleep disorders. As a clinical psychology resident and researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), I work in various settings, including a behavioral sleep medicine clinic, and sit on the Outreach and Public Education Committee for the Society of Behavioral Sleep Medicine, which disseminates evidence-based sleep health information to the masses. The COVID-19 pandemic has stimulated some interesting sleep issues, vivid dreams, and nightmares to say the least—not just for me, but for many others who have recently posted on social media about experiencing them, too.

So, why all of the unusual dreams in the time of coronavirus—and what can you do to sleep better? Read on to learn why and about some of my own tips for getting the rest of your dreams.

What happens when you sleep

Sleep includes both rapid eye movement sleep (REM) and non-REM sleep states. These states cycle about every 90 minutes during a typical night, with REM periods getting longer across the evening. While dreaming can happen in non-REM, most of it occurs in REM sleep.

During REM, the brain grows more active and revs up the amygdala and hippocampus—regions of the limbic system involved in emotions, sensations, and memories. In this time of heightened fear and distress, the limbic system has many more emotional demands to process. And because our brain likes order, the frontal lobes attempt to process, organize, and integrate our thoughts to make sense of the chaos of REM neural signals, which produces dreams. Our colorful dreams may reflect the many strong negative emotions COVID-19 has invited.

Dream on

 Emily Bartos/Flickr
Source: Emily Bartos/Flickr

A longer sleep schedule may also help explain increases in dreaming these days. Many people have started waking up later in this era of working from home, and because REM periods tend to last longer in the morning, this allows more time for dreaming.

Additionally, difficulties falling or staying asleep due to worry may reduce total sleep time. Shorter sleep duration may constrict REM sleep. However, this increases the pressure for REM later, resulting in more REM upon the next sleep opportunity. During this "REM rebound," dreams can often feel more vivid, intense, and emotionally charged.

How I’ve gotten the sleep of my dreams

So, what have I done to sleep better? I’ve practiced what I preach: 

1. I continue waking up at the same time every day.

Prior to COVID-19, I woke up consistently at 5:30 a.m.—even on weekends. I’ve kept up with this schedule during this time of COVID-19, too, however tempting it has felt to press snooze. Why? The body rewards regularity. People who wake up at the same time experience more metabolic health, improved cognition, and increased emotion regulation. To keep myself accountable, I place my alarm clock across the room so that I have to get out of bed to turn it off. I’ve also created an enjoyable morning routine that involves coffee and gratitude journaling outside in the morning light. Having something pleasant to look forward to makes it easier to get up, while the natural light helps entrain my circadian rhythm.

2. I stay active.

To sleep better at night, I get moving during the day. Sleep pressure—or the body’s “hunger” for sleep—accumulates with increasing time spent awake and dissipates with the opportunity to sleep. Vigorous, moderate, or even mild cardiovascular exercise — such as walking or even doing household chores—stimulates adenosine, which builds sleep pressure. Daytime energy expenditure means more sleep pressure and therefore improved sleep. However, I try not to exercise too close to bedtime: Some research has shown that exercise within one hour of bedtime can prolong sleep onset, reduce sleep time, and impair sleep efficiency.

 Daniel Horacio Agostini/Flickr
Source: Daniel Horacio Agostini/Flickr

3. I use my bed for two things only: sleep and sex.

Everything else—watching television about COVID-19, reading about COVID-19, or anxiously scrolling through my phone about COVID-19—happens out of bed and not near bedtime.

With more time spent inside, people may start doing sleep-disrupting things in bed like eating, working, and binge-watching Netflix—and they may notice difficulties falling or staying asleep because of it. Repeatedly pairing the bed with activity transforms the bed into a cue for wakefulness rather than for sleep. To restore the association of bed with sleep, you should only use the bed for sleep and sex.

At night, I get out of bed after 15-20 minutes when attempts to sleep fail me. Typically, I’ll go into another room with dim light and do something relaxing, such as a guided relaxation, light reading, or laundry folding. When I feel sleepy, I return to bed.

4. I have a relaxing bedtime ritual, devoid of all things COVID-19.

Darkness facilitates the production of the drowsiness-promoting hormone called melatonin; whereas light interrupts it. An hour before bed, I try to reduce face time with all light-emitting devices (yes, this includes my phone and laptop). Instead, I opt for a warm shower or bath. Emerging evidence suggests that passive body heating 60 to 120 minutes before bed can hasten sleep onset because it aids in dropping the core body temperature, a thermoregulatory process for initiating sleep.

If issues with recurrent nightmares, initiating, or maintaining sleep persist and start causing distress or impairment, consult a professional.

Sweet dreams!

A version of this post appeared originally on CBNC's Make It.