Up all night? Wild dreams? Expert tips to sleep better during the coronavirus pandemic

Korin Miller
·Writer
Sleep problems are widespread right now. Here’s what to do about it. Credit: Nathalie G. Cruz for Yahoo Lifestyle.
Sleep problems are widespread right now. Here’s what to do about it. Credit: Nathalie G. Cruz for Yahoo Lifestyle.

There’s no getting around it: Life is stressful right now. Maybe you’re working from home or got laid off due to coronavirus. Your kids are being homeschooled. And, like everyone else, you’re doing your best to stay home as much as possible to lower your risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19.

This added anxiety and change in routine is causing sleepless nights and wild dreams. And whether you’re hearing about these sleep problems from friends and coworkers, seeing it discussed on social media, or simply thinking it to yourself, you’re not alone — sleep experts confirm that they are hearing complaints from their patients, too.

But sleep is more important than ever right now, as it’s a key factor in keeping our bodies healthy. According to the National Institute of Health, getting proper sleep—that’s 7-8 hours per day—helps protect your mental health, physical health and safety. While you sleep, your organs are at work healing and repairing themselves.

What’s going on here?

There’s actually a lot more at play than you might think, board-certified sleep medicine researcher W. Christopher Winter, MD, of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine and author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

The big factor—which isn’t a shocker—is stress and anxiety. “There is absolutely a connection between anxiety and your ability to sleep,” Winter says. “In general, people tend to spend a little more time in lighter sleep when they’re anxious.”

Under normal circumstances, people have little arousals during the night, Winter explains. “If they’re relaxed, they’ll wake up, roll over, and go back to sleep without realizing it,” he says. “But if they’re anxious and on edge, they tend to be vigilant when they wake up, the wheels in their brain start turning, and they can’t fall back asleep. People tell me all the time, ‘If I wake up, I can’t turn things off.’”

This can turn into a sleep issue, Winter says: “After a few nights of this, you start to worry about waking up, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. That’s when things get problematic.”

You’re also dealing with a change in routine, and that can make sleep issues worse, Nicole Avena, PhD, assistant professor of neuroscience at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and visiting professor of health psychology at Princeton University, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Also, if you were used to going to the gym and exercising and now can't, that might contribute,” she says.

Winter says he’s heard from “a lot” of his patients who are professional athletes who are now not sleeping as well as they used to. “It’s normal,” he says. “As your body slows down, your need for sleep can change.”

What about the weird dreams?

You tend to dream about the things you think about during the day, Avena says. And, since life is far from normal these days, your dreams may be, too. “People tend to work out things in their dreams subconsciously that they have happening in real life,” Avena says. “If people are concerned about COVID-19, then it makes sense that they might start dreaming about it.”

Anxiety also doesn’t take a rest just because you’re asleep. “Anxiety works at night, too, trying to figure out how we can do things like pay the rent and keep ourselves safe,” Winter says. And, unfortunately, those fears can infiltrate your dreams, too.

A change in your sleep schedule can cause wonky dreams as well, Winter says. “If you’re working from home, you may have a bit more flexibility on when you need to get up,” he says. “But the fluctuation of your schedule will often heavily influence dreaming.”

You usually have your biggest cycle of dreams, which happen during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep, right before you wake up, Winter says. “If you usually get up at seven a.m., your brain tends to adjust that dream cycle to end 10 to 15 minutes before you wake up,” he explains. “But if you’re suddenly waking up earlier or later, it can influence those REM cycles—and your dreams.”

How can you sleep better?

Unfortunately, you (and everyone else in the world) can only do so much about the daily anxiety you’re experiencing. But that doesn’t mean you can’t try to control it.

  1. Educate yourself on coronavirus, but perhaps in small doses: Winter recommends reading about COVID-19 to be informed and getting your news from good, valid sources of information. “The more we don’t understand something, the more it can scare us,” he says. “Being informed can help.” That said, if reading about the virus tends to make you anxious, Winter says it’s best to only learn about it in small doses.

  2. Follow the rules of good sleep hygiene: Only retiring to your bed for sleep and sex, avoiding caffeine close to bedtime, establishing a regular bedtime routine and wakeup time, and creating a dark environment for your bedroom can be helpful, Winter says. So can using blackout curtains, sleep masks, ear plugs, white noise machines, humidifiers, and fans, the National Sleep Foundation says.

  3. Watch your wine intake: If your sleep feels truly out of whack, Avena recommends cutting back on how much you’re drinking, since alcohol can have a bad influence on sleep.

  4. Exercise when you first wake up: “Not only is it good for sleep, it gives you a sense of accomplishment, protects your health, and keeps you from interacting with the healthcare system, which no one who is healthy wants to do right now,” says Winter.

  5. Tidy up your home before bed: Even something as simple as cleaning up your place can play a role in getting good sleep. “People tend to be less stressed when their home environment is orderly,” Winter says.

If you try all these tricks and you’re still struggling to sleep, it’s not a bad idea to consult a sleep medicine doctor. Many are now offering telehealth consultations, so you could get professional help from the courtesy of your place.

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC and WHO’s resource guides.