Healthy Mind

How to Stop Your Coronavirus Nightmares From Stealing Your Dreams, According to a Sleep Doctor

Mary Grace Garis

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Right now, we quite simply can’t escape the impact of COVID-19—not even in our dreams. No, really, not even in our dreams. There’s a good chance that you, like me, have your shoddy four or so hours of sleep riddled with intense nightmares: hospital zombie apocalypses, tiger chases (with Joe Exotic), frantic climbs up mountains of toilet paper rolls that you inevitably tumble down, down, down. Perhaps you, like me, wake up the middle of the night, shaking, asking yourself, “Why am I having coronavirus nightmares? And how can I make them stop?”

Well, yes and no. One reason you may feel like you’re having more bad dreams right now could be because you’re simply remembering more dreams than usual. In fact, a recent survey of 2,477 Americans showed that nearly 30 percent of American adults had an uptick in dream recall in the past month. That matters, especially when you consider that research shows dreams often aren’t so cheerful to begin with. “The other important point is that the majority of dream content is negative, but usually with just a slight bend toward unpleasantness,” says sleep-disorder specialist Nathaniel Watson, MD. “So the expectation shouldn’t be that our dreams are always pleasant.”

But in the case of these coronavirus nightmares, the content is likely more vicious than simply “unpleasant,” right? People are reporting nightmares that feel especially intense, full of color and surround sound. Another recent survey, conducted by psychologist Deidre Leigh Barrett, PhD, sought reveal why; the results showed that certain general fears might be commodifying the general vibe of worry when it comes to our sleeping hours. That is, while nightmares about contracting the coronavirus or losing an aging parent are commonplace and also expected, scary dreams about insects tend also to be a reoccurring and horrifying theme. This reflects the collective trauma of being in quarantine having a number of us feeling apocalypse-minded, even subconsciously so.

“Stress or anxiety can be nightmare triggers, and certainly the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic could precipitate vivid nightmares.” —sleep-disorder specialist Nathaniel Watson, MD

“Stress or anxiety can be nightmare triggers, and certainly the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic could precipitate vivid nightmares,” says Dr. Watson. “Sleep deprivation and abuse of alcohol and illicit drugs can also trigger nightmares. Thus, in this difficult time, it is important to focus on our general health and sleep health in order to have nightmare-free nights.”

An actionable way to combat your coronavirus nightmares, then, is to be mindful of what you’re consuming before bedtime. (With alcohol sales surging during the pandemic, it seems many Americans are leaning heavily on it as a comforting crutch, which can be bad news for your dreams and sleep hygiene.)

And if your worries related to COVID-19 are keeping you up late at night, leaving you lost and overwhelmed in rumination, there are several concrete strategies for clearing your mind: Sleep doctor Shelby Harris, PsyD previously recommended to Well+Good that limiting news exposure to one hour a day, and stopping scrolling when you get in bed can help. Furthermore, Dr. Watson suggests taking pen to paper to get out all your thoughts. “Start a ‘worry journal’ to write down anxieties and concerns about COVID-19 in the evening before going to bed,” Dr Watson says. “When you’re done, close the diary, and tell yourself the time to worry about this is done, and now it’s time to sleep. This can help reduce anxiety and facilitate healthy sleep.”

And, of course, do your best to focus on taking care of yourself during this time. By being mindful about what you can realistically control when it comes to the pandemic stresses that are fueling those coronavirus nightmares, you may just be able to quell them.

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