10 ways to tame your COVID-19 dreams and get a good night’s sleep

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Strange times make for strange dreams. While I haven’t experienced it myself, I’m hearing from those around me who are waking up from weirder dreams than usual these days.

It certainly makes sense. When people are stressed or experiencing a lot of disruption in their lives, it can manifest in their dreams. And COVID-19 has caused a lot of stress for many of us.

In addition, because we dream during the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep, if you’re sleeping longer than you previously did—no longer bound to your morning wake-up alarm—you could be dreaming more frequently as well.

If you’re enjoying these dreams and waking up rested, by all means, continue what you’re doing. But if you find that you’re exhausted as well as baffled by your unconscious mind, it might mean you need to make some adjustments to optimize your much-needed rest. Here are some measures I recommend.

  1. Keep a consistent sleep schedule. I know that’s easier said than done with kids, partners and chaos at home, but try to go to bed within 30 minutes to an hour of the same time every night.
  2. Curb caffeine and alcohol. Caffeine can last up to 12 hours in your system, so be mindful of what you’re consuming in the afternoon. And if you’re drinking alcohol to help you doze off, stop. It disrupts REM sleep and reduces your overall quality of sleep.
  3. Exercise. Find ways to de-stress and relax your body. This could mean going for a jog, lifting weights or practicing yoga or meditation.
  4. Keep a journal. If you’re feeling distressed—by life or by your dreams—get out what’s bothering you by writing it down.
  5. Wind down. Take 15 or 20 minutes to shut everything down before you go to bed. Try to relax.
  6. Keep it dark. That means shutting down phones and screens and anything that might trick your brain into believing it’s daytime. On the flipside, make sure you expose yourself to light in the morning and throughout the day—open your windows, turn on the lights or get outside.
  7. Sleep in the same place every night. This means no falling asleep on the couch. You want your brain conditioned to its “sleep place.” And keep it a “sleep place.” The laptop should stay away from the bed.
  8. Bore yourself to sleep. When you’re trying to fall asleep, the last thing you want to do is stimulate your brain. If you’re having troubles, try reading something boring, ideally on paper. Think back to the days when you were in school and had to read things you didn’t want to.
  9. Limit naps. Unless you have a schedule that works for you, napping during the day increases the chance that your nighttime sleep will suffer. If you need a nap, limit it to about 30 minutes—just enough to refresh you.

Meena Khan is a neurology and sleep medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and an associate professor in the Ohio State College of Medicine.