Weird Dreams? The Coronavirus Pandemic Could Be Messing With Your Sleep

Jun 22, 2020

About a third of our lives is spent sleeping. Sleep is good for our health and builds our immune function, something especially important during a pandemic.

However, the CDC estimates that 30-40% of American adults sleep less than six hours a night. That's two hours less than the recommended eight hours. Sleep deprivation is often associated with an increased risk of high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and our ability to cope with stress.

"There’s also just the really big issue of stress and anxiety that’s almost universal among folks at this point [during the coronavirus]. And certainly, how we feel and our level of stress can pretty significantly impact how we sleep at night and how we perceive the quality of our sleep," notes Dr. David Plante, the medical director of the Wisconsin Institute for Sleep and Consciousness

Since the coronavirus pandemic has changed our lives and schedules, our brains are now working overtime. Plante says recent data shows people are now sleeping a bit longer since they're home during the coronavirus pandemic. But that doesn't mean the quality is better.

"What a lot of people are noticing is they may start sleeping later and not keep a regular wake time, and that can lead to a disruption in their regular routine and then that can actually make it harder to sleep at night," Plante explains.

Here are some other ways COVID-19 pandemic has impacted your sleeping patterns:

You may be remembering more of your dreams

Have you been dreaming more since the start of the pandemic? While we still don't know what exactly dreams do or are for, Plante says, "What we do think is that dreams fundamentally probably help consolidate memory to a certain degree and probably help us process some of our daily activities."

Different parts of our brain are active while dreaming, and our prefrontal cortex (the front of the brain) is relatively offline while you're asleep, according to Plante. The prefrontal cortex helps us with reason, judgment and logical thought — which is why our dreams can be quite odd and make no sense.

Plus, anxiety can cause more brief arousals during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep and more trauma-associated dreams or nightmares, says Plante. 

"A lot of times you remember having a dream when you wake up from REM sleep," he notes. "So probably with COVID-19, we're not necessarily dreaming more, but we may be remembering a lot more of our dreams [due to waking up more]."

Your inner clock may be off

Work, entertainment, connecting with others: screens are being used for nearly all of those things during the pandemic. And that can wreak havoc on your inner clock.

The blue light from our screens on phones, computers and televisions causes our internal clock, or circadian rhythm, to shift. Our body is confused by the conflicting light cues that can keep us up longer than we should — especially at night. One way to get better sleep is to limit your screen time, says Plante.

>> Fit For You: Circadian Timing & Tips To Reset Your Internal Clock

You may be at risk for insomnia

Plante notes that anytime you have a life stressor you're at an increased risk for insomnia, anxiety and depression, "and those three things are actually intimately tied to one another."

The rates of insomnia are certainly rising during the pandemic, which can cause a vicious cycle. Things can get better if you work to adjust your sleep quality, says Plante.

"Right now, we're in an unusual situation of a widespread and chronic stressor, which is very challenging and we don't know how that will all play out. But I suspect people will have a lot of residual insomnia, even well after COVID-19 has left us."

You may feel tempted to nap, which Plante recommends trying to avoid. While naps are typically short and can be refreshing for some people, a lot of people don't notice a benefit and could even feel worse. Napping can also make insomnia worse if you try to sleep during the day.

Plante's quick tips to improve your sleep

  • Try to develop better sleep habits and patterns for the long haul 
  • Keep a routine
  • Exercise
  • Avoid caffeine later in the day
  • Don't drink alcohol before bed

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