Coronavirus has seeped into every aspect of our waking lives. It’s no surprise then that it’s infiltrated our sleeping lives too. One particular side-effect: People are having extremely weird and vivid dreams. Friends and relatives have all mentioned this within the past few weeks. So, too, have many, many people on Twitter and Reddit. It’s become such a trend that someone started crowd-sourcing and cataloguing strikingly strange dreams from around the world on the blog “I Dream of COVID.” So what the hell is going on?
To understand why a person’s dreams might be exceptionally lush and memorable right now, it’s important to take a quick look at the mechanics of sleep and dreaming. The average adult sleeps between seven and nine hours per night, with some portion of the second half spent in a deep sleep known as rapid-eye movement (or REM) sleep, which is when most dreams occur.
“All of us get REM sleep for about a quarter of the night. This is the truly restorative stage when dream sleep takes place,” says Dr. Abhinav Singh, M.D. the Medical Director for the Indiana Sleep Center. “So, let’s say you go to bed at 10 and wake up at six. Your REM sleep is likely concentrated between the hours of 3 and 6.”
Which is why after being woken by the morning alarm after a normal night’s sleep, people often feel as if they’ve been pulled from a deep, dream-heavy rest and want to drift off again to resume whatever it was their subconscious cooked up.
But what causes us to dream more or less? And why are so many, right now, experiencing such elaborate dreams? One of the most plausible theories, says Dr. Singh, is stress. Well, more specifically, the hormone cortisol, which spikes when our stress levels are elevated.
We need cortisol to function — it plays an important role in controlling many of the rhythms of the body, from blood pressure to energy levels and blood sugar. An excess of cortisol starts to eat into sleep, because it leaves people amped up and unable to fall asleep. “If you’re thinking a lot or stressed about what is going in on the world, you’re in an amped-up position which is inversely proportional to sleep,” says Dr. Singh.
Once someone has been deprived of sleep, the first thing that’s lost is the tail end of sleep where dream sleep occurs. “When you start depriving yourself slowly of dream sleep and you reach a point where the body starts to rebound, it starts to crave REM sleep because it’s required the same way clean air and clean water are,” says Dr. Singh. “This means that this REM sleep begins to take place or tries to take place more throughout the night to compensate and you’re getting a lot more exaggerated dream sleep.”
Dr. Singh likens it to squeezing a spring down and then letting it go. “You start to see an exaggerated bounce-up from the spring,” he says. “If you get less and less of something, it starts to create it more and more. And that’s likely what’s happening when people are saying that they had such a vivid dream.”
Interesting, right? A common example Dr. Singh sees is someone who has a string of four nights of crummy sleep. On the fifth, this person crashes hard. In that sleep, as the body tries to recover, they dream more and their dreams are often exceptionally colorful and elaborate.
It’s not surprising to hear that stress is one of the big factors in the clear recollection of weird dreams. And, Dr. Singh says, there’s another glaring reason: alcohol.
“When people are stressed, they often resort to alcohol to vent anxiety or forget how they’re feeling. But what alcohol does so conveniently — and what so many people often overlook — is that alcohol is the most common over-the-counter sedative in the world,” he says. “And it is also probably the poorest.”
Alcohol plays a pretty good trick. For the first two hours, it activates the sleep circuits in the brain and does, in fact, aid rest. But, says Dr. Singh, “for the next five or six hours it really acts like darts firing into your brain.” Because a person’s body is busy breaking down the toxins from alcohol through the liver, it’s rerouting energy that would otherwise be used to help them achieve good, restorative sleep. The result is a poor night’s sleep. Dr. Singh says that this, too, could likely lead to more vivid dreams.
Dreams are lovely things. But much as vibrant sunsets are caused by disruptions in the atmosphere, vivid dreams are likely caused by disrupted sleep habits. Good sleep is all about structure and repetition. To achieve more of it more regularly means sticking to a daily routine. Ideally, this means getting lots of light before noon, limiting caffeinated beverages, and not napping after 3 p.m. Getting some exercise during the day, at least three or four hours before bed, and sticking to a diet of healthy fiber- and protein-rich foods will also help. As will taking measures to control stress levels, limit screen usage before bed, not drinking too much alcohol before bed, and going to bed and waking up at the same time every day.
It also means having a proper wind-down routine before bed. Dr. Singh’s version, which he teaches to all of his patients, is dubbed “4-Play.” The four steps of the routine are: shower, journal, read, breathe. Each should be done for 10 to 15 minutes. A warm shower relaxes the body and helps release melatonin; journaling helps get out all the thoughts, lists, errands, and whatever else is swirling around in the brain; reading focuses and relaxes the mind; and breathing exercises help relax the mind, preparing it for good rest.
“By doing this, you’re conditioning the brain,” says Dr. Singh. “The brain is very, very fertile when it comes to conditioning routines. Structure is the gateway to good sleep.”