I hike to the top of a mountain with a good friend and we’re taking a break, enjoying the view. I turn to talk to her, but she is now gone. I call out her name. Panic grips me. Where is she? Is she in some sort of trouble? It suddenly seems urgent to get to the bottom of the mountain as quickly as possible, but somehow, the only way down is a rickety, old-looking rope ladder off a steep cliff. I can feel my stomach lurch as I peer over the edge. I tell myself it’ll all be okay as long as I climb and don’t stop. I close my eyes and swing my leg over the side. Phew! Hardest part over, right? Not even close. The mountain has transformed into a Ferris wheel and I’m grasping the edge of one of the ride’s cars, legs flailing, fingers beginning to slip…
Mercifully, my eyes flutter open right then, and with my heart pounding, I realize it was a dream. I pull my phone off the charger and it reads 3:12am. Wide awake now, with no chance of getting back to sleep, I groan, peeling myself out of bed to start quarantine day 6125 (or so it feels).
While we may be in relative isolation right now, we’re certainly not alone when it comes to sleep issues during quarantine. Pandemic related stress and anxiety can directly affect sleeping patterns, quality of sleep and even dreams. According to WBIR News 10, 70% of people polled reported some trouble sleeping or difficulty staying asleep, and more than a few of these were due to stress-induced vivid dreams.
“Vivid dreams, good or bad, can feel real,” says Yvonne Thomas, reporter for News 10. “They can be spontaneous and random, but anxiety and stress can play a role if dreams start feeling too real. Pandemic stress and anxiety could be a reason why you’re not getting rest like you used to.”
Good sleep is ridiculously important to your overall health and quality of life. According to the Sleep Foundation, quality sleep enhances mood, heightens brain function, positively impacts mental health, makes you more alert and strengthens your immune system. A consistent lack of sleep, however, not only saps your energy and makes you feel groggy and slow, but can worsen depression, has been linked to mental conditions like PTSD, anxiety and bipolar disorder, and can even lessen the effectiveness of vaccines.
Whether you’re having trouble falling asleep, dealing with stressful, vivid dreams, or would simply like to wake up feeling more refreshed, here are some tips to improve your sleep.
1. Make a routine and stick to it
Go to bed and wake up at around the same times each day, so your body can get used to the schedule (this is known as your circadian rhythm – it generally repeats every 24 hours, and helps coordinate your sleep-wake cycle). Resist the urge to hit the snooze in the morning, and take extra time to relax and unwind at night. In addition, make sure to shower and get dressed every day (yes, even if your major destination right now is the living room). We are missing essential time-of-day anchors right now (morning commute, picking up kids from school, meeting a friend for coffee after class, etc.) so this is more important for your “inner clock” than you may realize.
2. Be purposeful with your light exposure
Get some sunlight during the day (even opening the window blind will work) to help maintain a natural circadian rhythm. As much as possible, try to avoid the blue light of screens for the final hour before you go to sleep.
3. Get exercise
Staying active will greatly help you fall asleep, and research shows that exercise helps your body stay in restorative deep sleep longer. Challenge yourself and work up a sweat if you can (there are so many free workouts and tutorials on Instagram and other platforms for every fitness level), or go for a walk outside as long as you can maintain a safe distance from other people.
4. Journal to understand what you’re feeling
As an additional step for those experiencing nightmares or anxious dreams like I am, write down your dreams to better understand them. Shift the focus from the plot and characters of your dream to how it’s making you feel. Real-life feelings can often translate into bad dreams and dealing with the issue in real life can often make the dreams go away. “When people have a recurring nightmare, I tell them, ‘We’ve got to figure out where the dream is coming from, so we can stop it,’” says psychologist Jenn Hardy. “That is the most effective way to stop the dream. Figure out what situation you’re stuck in. Deal with it in real life and get them unstuck. It shifts the dream.”