The COVID-19 pandemic has made even sleep feel stressful. From vivid dreams and nightmares to increased levels of insomnia, many people are struggling with sleep right now.
This makes sense, because “we are wired to stay awake in the face of danger,” Jennifer Martin, clinical psychologist and member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, and professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, tells CNBC Make It. “In that way, it’s normal to have struggles with sleep throughout all kinds of difficult situations.”
The challenge right now is that the threat of a global pandemic is not so “tangible,” Martin says. Often when people go through a stressful situation, their sleep improves when the problem resolves. But it’s not clear when the COVID-19 pandemic will end, and life will go back to normal.
“We’re at a time where people are at risk for developing habits that might make it difficult for their sleep to go back to normal,” Martin says.
Why your dreams are so vivid
The experiences that you have, the content that you consume and the visuals you interact with during the day absolutely can affect your dreams, Martin says. This is a concept called “dream incorporation,” and it happens when a stimulus you encounter in real life makes its way into your dreams.
“If you are spending two hours in front of on the news media, or you end up reading about COVID-19 before bed, it’s pretty likely that that’s going to come up in your dreams at night,” Martin says. On the flip side, if you’re engaged with something that’s more neutral or even pleasant, those themes are more likely to present in your dreams.
There’s another reason why your dreams are particularly memorable right now. Most of your dreaming takes place during the lightest stage of sleep, which is “rapid eye movement” or REM sleep, Martin says. “To remember your dreams, most of the time you need to wake up during the dream,” she says.
“The fact that people are remembering dreams or remembering their dreams more vividly is probably because their sleep is more disturbed in general,” she says.
How to sleep sounder and have fewer nightmares
The best treatment for recurring nightmares is to try to sleep more soundly, Martin says. If your sleep is solid, you tend to wake up less often during the night, so your bad dreams are much less bothersome.
Although your remote work schedule might allow you to press snooze when you’d otherwise be commuting, it’s important to stick to as normal of a sleep schedule as possible: Have a regular get up time in the morning and a consistent bedtime at night, Martin says.
Be mindful of how much time you’re spending in bed too. “One of the things that I’m hearing is that people are kind of bored” and are hanging out longer in bed, she says.
While you might be going to bed at your usual time, “instead of getting up at six to get ready for work, people are kind of lounging in bed until eight,” she says. The extra time spent under your covers will just make it harder to fall and stay asleep.
If you’re sitting at home, it can also feel tempting to keep refilling your coffee mug. But Martin suggests stopping your caffeine intake at least 10 hours before your planned bedtime. “That gives your body a chance to metabolize most of the caffeine,” she says.
Another thing about beverages: while virtual happy hours are a great way to stay connected with friends and family, alcohol can mess with your sleep, Martin says. “Alcohol makes us feel kind of relaxed and drowsy at first, but the metabolism of alcohol is very sleep-disruptive,” she says. “Cutting way back or even eliminating alcohol is something that can help with solid sleep.”
Finally, have a wind-down routine that doesn’t involve scrolling social media or watching the news. “The content that we’re engaged with tends to be pretty activating,” Martin says. “It’s probably not helpful to be checking the news, reading about how bad the situation is, and then putting your head on the pillow and trying to fall asleep.”
About half an hour before you want to go to bed, do something relaxing that you wouldn’t mind dreaming about: read a book, talk to your family or look at photos of past vacations, for example. “You actually can influence your dream content in a positive way too,” she says.