Credit: Rachel Hawley

It’s 2 AM. Social media lights up with posts that send a feeble flare.

“Is anyone else up and having trouble sleeping?” one friend on Facebook writes. Another quips, “I’ve been able to do nothing but nap off and on during the day, and I can’t seem to get anything done once the afternoon strikes.” Since the coronavirus pandemic and stay-at-home orders began, countless people on Twitter have been habitually waking up earlier than the birds, canvassing their followers to see if anyone is experiencing similar sleep patterns.

More often than not, I’ve been up late—or early—enough to be able to respond in real time. After one particularly rough night in which I woke up sweating profusely, I got up enough gumption to post and ask my own friends if they, too, were struggling with getting good rest. And there was an added layer to my nightly disturbances in the form of unusually vivid dreams that woke me up and made it more difficult to return to sleep.

There was something of a pattern at play: the feeling of being punished for trying to go about life as usual, and a nostalgia for familiar people and places. In one instance, I dreamt that I was naked and unprepared for an event where I was scheduled to speak; right as I was in the middle of writing my speech, the appearance quickly changed to taking place at home, from my computer, within minutes. I was left scrambling, running to the restroom feeling harried. And then I woke up, short of breath at 4 AM, having to relieve myself and make sense of why I felt so tense.

After that night, I learned I was not alone. One of my friends on the west coast said they’d dreamt that the nation had descended into martial law and a time of extreme measures for survival. Another friend slumbered into a nightmare about getting yelled at in a drive-thru testing site for COVID-19. Others had stress dreams about work, traumatic events from their past, or accidentally infecting other people with COVID-19 by not properly socially distancing, and one friend’s nightmare mirrored the news of some cruise ships being docked indefinitely due to outbreaks, as she ended up as a passenger on an infected private yacht.

Most of them said they hadn’t had dreams this vivid before COVID-19, and we all didn’t quite know how to process what was happening. But somewhere, subconsciously, our brains were making sense of the stark shift in routine and lifestyle, if not a wave of grief over constant news about the suffering and loss of life brought on by the pandemic, or the feeling of collective stress.

If this sounds like something you or your friends have also experienced, experts say you aren’t alone, and that there are various methods of processing and coping with the unusually vivid dreams and sleep disturbances.

Dr. Jennifer Mundt, a sleep psychologist at the Northwestern Medicine Sleep Disorders Group, said a number of behavioral, psychological, and environmental factors are at play with the disruption in sleep patterns that’s emerged since the onset of COVID-19. Although some people may be sleeping better with the extra time, she said others may have their schedules thrown off due to sudden unemployment or increased use of alcohol at home, along with any emergence of anxiety or depression, lack of sunlight from extended time indoors, and most of all, elevated stress.

“Insomnia and nightmares are really common reactions to stress and trauma, so it’s a very normal reaction, and people are having trouble sleeping. It is normal. For most people, it will just fade naturally over time,” Mundt said. “I think that’s important, because it’s not something to focus a lot on and worry about, it’ll pass as life goes back to normal. Sleep will go back to normal for most people.”

But the experience of nightmares, newly vivid dreams, or altered sleep patterns with COVID-19 isn’t universal. Some people may like the new vividness of dreams, said Dr. James Wyatt, who specializes in clinical sleep disorders and behavioral sleep medicine at Rush University Medical Center.

“The experience of people dealing with this is highly varied and mixed. Many people are spending more time at home, and there may be more positive and negative elements associated with it. If you’re working from home, there may be a positive element to not having a longer commute, more time with the kids, or more cooking,” Wyatt said, noting that an individual’s level of resilience is also a factor. “It’s challenging individuals to see how much they can process the change and how much good can they pull out of it.”

Drawing from recent telehealth visits with patients experiencing sleep disruptions and insomnia, Wyatt said some people are having trouble sleeping out of fear of exposure, anxiety or stress associated with job loss, or because they don’t have the same daily routine to get up and go do. On the other hand, some people have had less pressure put on their sleep because they have more flexibility than before.

Still, some therapists say that the hyperconsumption of news about the virus could be adding to daily stress and contributing to trouble sleeping, in addition to the very real experiences of scarcity at the height of the pandemic, and the economic fallout. The problem comes when vivid dreams turn into persistent nightmares, or when sleep disruptions become more of a long-standing challenge versus an occasional occurrence. That’s when treatment with a doctor or therapist could become necessary.

“There’s nothing really problematic with vivid dreams, but there’s a problem when you’re disturbed by it. It’s the content that disturbs people,” said Monica Guzman, a licensed clinical professional counselor at a community-based health center. “Sometimes, when you talk [or write] about it, you can work out the path the brain was trying to work through so there can be resolution . . . or leave your bed and do something like reading, and if you get sleepy, go back.”

Guzman advises focusing on rest rather than getting back to sleep, because stressing about sleeping may spur anxiety that ends up keeping you awake. Others note that it’s important to take a holistic approach to determining what’s impacting your ability to sleep well, especially during the pandemic.

“Are you sleeping enough? What are you eating? Are you exercising? Taking care of your physical health, too, can impact your dreams. If you’re thinking it’s COVID related, are you reading the news before bed? Are you watching a lot of TV before bed? I really encourage sleep hygiene as a practice and noticing and recognizing any patterns that may be affecting sleep which, in turn, may be affecting your dreams at night,” said Caroline Heller, a licensed clinical professional counselor and board-certified art therapist.

“I also take a harm reduction approach,” Heller added, encouraging people to consider what they might do or reduce to have a better night’s rest.   v