Why You May Be Suffering From Insomnia And Bad Dreams

Why You May Be Suffering From Insomnia And Bad Dreams

May 12, 2020 Updated December 21, 2020

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Scary Mommy and SuperStock/Jon Feingersh Photography/Getty

I yank the door to my bedroom shut and grab at the mound of dirty clothes piled in the hallway, stuffing as many as I can under the crack of the door. I can’t let that thing slither out under the door. If it touches anyone in the family, we’ll all be dead within hours. My dog is trapped in the room with it—I couldn’t save him. Tears blurring my vision, I round up my children, my partner, and my mom, and herd everyone outside in a frantic rush, where we throw our things into the back of an old blue station wagon. I don’t know how far this ancient car will take us, but I know we have to get away, as far as we can. My poor dog. But it’s too late. He’s already infected by the thing trapped in my bedroom. So many have been infected. How can this be real?

I bolt upright in bed, my heart racing, my face damp with tears for my abandoned dog. I still have a clear picture of the alien-virus monster in my head—it was like a tapeworm but bigger, gray and flat and wriggling, too fast to catch it and squash it. The only way to escape it was to run from it. It was impossible to kill.

My dreams have always been vivid and laden with metaphor, but since the pandemic started, they’re off the charts. I jar awake every morning an hour or two before sunrise with scenes of chaos and panic blaring in my head. I’m either trapped somewhere with no hope of escape, or I’m running from something, or I’m dying or watching someone I love die.

These dreams come during a sleep that has either eluded me for hours or that I have inadvertently sabotaged by scrolling social media while lying in the dark, “waiting to get tired.” I know I need to cultivate better sleep habits. But everything is fucking bonkers right now, and my sleep (or lack of it) is no exception.

Experts say I’m not alone. Hailey Meaklim is a psychologist and research scientist who is studying how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting people’s dreams and sleep. “Dreams are thought to be our brain’s way to try to process emotions and make sense of what is happening to us,” she said in an interview with Quartz.

So it makes sense that when our days are filled with stress and uncertainty, our sleep and dreams would be affected by that. Studies have shown that cortisol, known as the stress hormone, has a direct effect on both the bizarreness of dreams as well as a person’s ability to remember them. Even in normal times, cortisol levels increase over the course of a night’s sleep, reaching their highest levels in the early morning hours. Add some pandemic-induced cortisol to the mix and no wonder I am jarred awake by wild dreams every morning around the same time.

Christy Beck, a therapist based in State College, Pennsylvania, told Quartz that we are experiencing a “collective trauma.” Most of us know that trauma can trigger or exacerbate anxiety and depression, and we may even know that it can disrupt our sleep, inducing insomnia (difficulty falling asleep), parasomnia (frequent waking), or hypersomnia (excessive daytime sleeping).

But many have been taken by surprise by the vivid and memorable dreams they’ve been experiencing. Some who normally don’t remember their dreams are now waking up with memories of bright scenarios in their heads, and others who regularly recall their dreams have had their dreams ramped up into increasingly bizarre territory and the memories of those dreams stick around longer. My tapeworm-alien-virus dream fits into this latter category—I remember it as clearly as if it actually happened to me. I still get a sinking feeling “remembering” having to leave my dog behind.

I conducted an informal poll on my Facebook page to see if my friends were experiencing similar, and they definitely are. Interestingly, a few common themes have arisen as a result of this ultra-specific type of collective trauma. We’re all experiencing a sudden and intense loss of control on an individual, community-wide, and global scale, so it makes sense our dreams would have overlapping themes.

Most common were dreams about loss of control, whether explicit or metaphorical. One friend dreamed she was driving a car in the middle of a marathon and kept hitting people, and she wanted to stop, but police forced her to keep driving and running people over. Another friend dreamed she had allowed a friend to babysit, and the friend lost her daughter. Friends reported dreams of trying to make an emergency call but the phone not working, of getting an ugly tattoo in unwanted location, of riding a roller coaster without being buckled in, of being on a hijacked plane nose-diving toward earth, of performing surgery despite not having any medical training.

Another repeated theme was dreaming of monsters, aliens, or other things humans are commonly afraid of. Experts theorize that because we’re dealing with an invisible terror, our brains are swapping out the virus for a visible, tangible threat—like a tapeworm-alien-virus. Friends reported dreaming of spiders, terrorists, snakes, tornadoes, and fires. One friend has had repeated dreams of a “bad guy” who chases her in her dreams and always turns out to be her abusive ex husband.

Of course, some people’s dreams aren’t metaphorical at all. Many friends reported dreams of either being forced to hug people or being hugged against their will, and some dreamed of being out in a crowd somewhere, like the mall or a movie theater, and suddenly remembering they were in the middle of a pandemic and needed to go home. One friend dreamed she was grocery shopping and realized she forgot to wear her mask, another dreamed about being on the hunt for toilet paper, and another dreamed she misplaced her hand sanitizer. A few dreamed they or a loved one had died of COVID-19.

I’m fortunate that the panic of my dreams does not generally leak into the rest of my day. But if your dreams are bothering you or your sleep is otherwise disrupted and causing you distress, try the following to help get yourself back on track:

Maintain a consistent daily schedule.

Our well-being depends heavily on the maintenance of our circadian rhythm, or sleep-wake cycles. Our other daily activities feed into this too, though—things like when we take our meals or do our work or go for walks. The more consistent your schedule, the better you’ll feel overall, and the better you’ll sleep.

Exercise.

Get those endorphins flowing and burn up some of that pent-up energy so you are more likely to fall asleep at night and get a good rest. Exercise is a great mood-booster too.

Take time for yourself, even if it’s just a few minutes.

The exercise previously mentioned, or 10 minutes of meditation, or a long, hot bath. Reducing stress reduces cortisol levels which reduces the likelihood for intense, unsettling dreams.

Keep your bedroom for sleeping only.

This is a common piece of advice for insomnia sufferers, but it’s a good sleep habit to maintain overall. I am guilty of working in the exact same spot that I sleep, with my laptop in my lap. No wonder I’m getting such horrible sleep.

Take it easy on the news consumption.

Limit yourself to a few trusted resources, and then stop scrolling. My anxiety majorly ratchets up when I find myself in comment threads filled with ignorant conspiracy theorists. I have even had dreams about trying to reason with people about coronavirus.

Plan your dreams.

This sounds a little cuckoo, but experts say it works. As you lie in bed at night, envision soothing scenarios, such as visiting a beloved friend or touring your favorite city or hiking your favorite mountain trail. Supposedly this kind of “dream planning” can make for an easier night’s dreaming.