Up at night with coronavirus nightmares? Experts say it’s totally normal
'Sleep is a very sensitive barometer of our level of stress'

Up at night with coronavirus nightmares? Experts say it’s totally normal

Social distancing and irregular routines cause anxiety and disrupted sleep, but we should be able to return to getting a good night’s rest once all this is over, say profs

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Illustrative image of a sleepless man (tommaso79; iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative image of a sleepless man (tommaso79; iStock by Getty Images)

Julie Gray recently dreamed of people in hazmat suits unloading body bags from a helicopter outside her house in Israel’s Ramat Gan. In another dream, people were running — terrified, screaming, clawing and tearing at one another — from something unseen that was trying to round them up.

“It was awful. I rarely have nightmares, and never in my life have I dreamed directly about something like this,” Gray, an author and editor, told The Times of Israel.

Pearl Mattenson, a nonprofit consultant who immigrated to Israel a year and a half ago, reported that she had a dream where in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, Israel was attacked by an enemy and the country was suddenly at war.

“We needed to find a bunker, but as new renters in our building I wasn’t sure where it was… In the dream, I woke my husband as we tried to figure out what to bring to the shelter, even as rockets were flying overhead and time was of the essence,” Mattenson said.

David Moyal, a synagogue administrator in Toronto, tidily summed up his recent weird dreams simply as “Cronenbergesque,” making reference to the Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg, who pioneered the body horror genre, or the disturbing intersection of technology, the human body, and the subconscious.

Illustrative image of a sleeping woman (AndreyPopov; iStock by Getty Images)

Gray, Mattenson and Moyal are hardly alone in having vivid, disturbing dreams as the entire world copes with the COVID-19 pandemic. It is common to see social media posts about bizarre dreams, trouble sleeping, or both.

Prof. Peretz Lavie (Nitzan Zohar/Technion)

“Sleep is a very sensitive barometer of our levels of stress. It’s the first thing that changes when we are stressed. So, it is very natural that people are experiencing this during the coronavirus crisis,” said Prof. Peretz Lavie, former Technion president and professor emeritus in the university’s Rappaport Faculty of Medicine. Lavie is an expert in the psychophysiology of sleep and sleep disorders.

According to Lavie, it is normal to have strange dreams these days. “We dream of the things that are of importance to us during the day. Dreams are bizarre now because we are in a bizarre situation.”

Lavie noted that even for Israelis, who are unfortunately accustomed to wars and terrorist attacks, COVID-19 is causing a new kind of anxiety that is playing itself out while at rest.

It’s like an invasion from Mars. It’s an invisible enemy

“It’s like an invasion from Mars. It’s an invisible enemy. People have a fear of this new illness and have little experience living in isolation as we have been doing for over a month. The density of the events and emotions we are dealing with now are difficult to digest and adapt to,” Lavie said.

Technicolor dreaming

Some individuals, such as Steve, a civil servant in Ottawa, Canada, and David A.M. Wilensky, a journalist in San Francisco, reported that they are remembering their dreams more than usual.

“I don’t often remember my dreams, but right now I remember a lot of details of my dreams almost every night,” Wilensky said.

“I seem to be dreaming so much now that I go from one to another. It’s almost like binge watching multiple shows and movies — so much so that it is hard to remember everything,” Steve said.

It’s almost like binge watching multiple shows and movies

According to Dr. Meir Kryger, a professor at the Yale School of Medicine who has been treating patients with sleep disorders for over 40 years, the fact that dreams are more and better remembered can be attributed to sleep disturbances that many are currently experiencing.

Dr. Meir Kryger (Yale University)

Usually sleepers experience between three and five rapid eye movement (REM) cycles — the time when we have vivid dreams — per night. We may remember one dream, but only fleetingly. However, if we wake up during or right after one of these REM cycles, it may make more of an impact on us.

“People are waking up a lot more during the night, so there is a greater chance they will remember their dreams,” Kryger explained.

Disturbed sleep patterns are due in large part to the anxiety-provoking effects of being locked down at home, even while working remotely — assuming one still has a job as the global economy heads into free fall.

According to Kryger, the body craves regularity when it comes to sleep, but this isn’t happening now when sleep-wake and light exposure patterns are more variable. Eating schedules are off, as well.

Who couldn’t use a good nap?

Gordon Haber, a writer and teacher in New York who lost his teaching job last month, finds sleeping is a necessity now. He also can’t get through the day without a nap.

Steve from Ottawa is also sleeping more hours. “I’m also going to bed a bit later, as my morning commute is now just a flight of stairs,” he said.

Jacob’s Dream by Adam Elsheimer (via Wikimedia Commons)

Rachel, a bereavement counsellor in Brooklyn, New York, shared that she was far more exhausted than usual and often falls asleep on the couch while watching TV with her husband. However, once she goes to bed, she only sleeps for a few hours and then is wide awake from 4:00-5:30 a.m. When she falls back asleep, the weird dreams begin.

As stated by Lavie, we dream about what is happening to us during the daytime. This has always been the case. However, during past similar events, such as the 1918 influenza pandemic, people were not inundated with visual media as we are now. These repetitive themes and graphic images specific to the COVID-19 crisis are making their way into our nocturnal journeys.

For example, Rachel dreamed that she had planned an event for bereaved children. “It involved shooting marbles, about as tactile and unsanitary an activity as you can imagine,” Rachel recounted.

“In the dream, I had not arranged for hand sanitizer or access to hand washing… And the recurring image was children reaching into the same bag of marbles. I remember waking up feeling nauseous,” she said.

Illustrative image of a sleeping man (Credit: tommaso79, iStock by Getty Image)

Influenced by everyone’s concern about stocking up on supplies, Palo Alto, California retiree Randi Brenowitz said she has been dreaming about food a lot lately. Fortunately, her dreams have been quite pleasant. Rachel, on the other hand, dreamed that she was living in an old house with her husband, and there were remnants of food in the cupboards and all of it was infested with bugs.

“Vermin were fighting us for the food,” Rachel said.

While none of those interviewed by The Times of Israel have lost loved ones to COVID-19, some have friends who have had the disease, and many are caring for elderly relatives, who are especially vulnerable to the virus.

This closeness to illness and death — or even their possibility — is also creeping into dreams. Wilensky said he had a dream in which he was late for work and completely broke. But he felt a strong urge to visit a friend who is sick with coronavirus (in real life) and has a number of preexisting conditions.

“So I spent my last few dollars on an Uber to go visit her,” Wilensky said of what he recalled from his dream.

Good sleep is around the corner

Both Lavie and Kryger are confident that most individuals will eventually return to normal sleep and dreaming patterns. It just may take a while, given the anxiety caused by the open-ended nature of the crisis.

“It may take much longer for those who are hit hard economically by the situation,” Lavie said.

Both experts warned that first-responders and medical personnel on the front lines caring for COVID-19 victims, who are facing misery and death daily (and often working in situations spiraling out of control), may end up with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and longterm related sleep disturbances.

Illustrative image of a tired woman (Credit: fizkes, iStock by Getty Images)

Lavie advised keeping to as normal a routine as possible to help restore regular sleep and avoid nightmares. Kryger warned against spending too much time on social media and watching TV news, especially at night.

Most of all, it is important to remember that it is normal to have intense dreams right now.

“There are no hidden meanings in these dreams. It’s a dream — it’s not real it’s not judgmental, and it’s not prescriptive,” Kryger said.

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