Why You're Having So Many Weird Dreams During Quarantine, According to Sleep Experts
Yes, melatonin might be playing a role in those crazy dreams you've had lately.
Take Lindsey Hein, for example. The podcast host and mother of four recently tweeted that she dreamed that her husband, Glenn (who works in finance and is currently WFH) was trying to pick up shifts at the restaurant they worked at when they first met in college more than a decade ago. Upon recalling the dream, Hein immediately tied it to COVID-19 and its effects on her and her family, she tells Shape. Although she normally works remotely and her husband's job is secure, she says she's seen a decline in podcast sponsorships, not to mention she's had to cancel events related to her show. "With our normal flow of life being interrupted, I've had little time and energy to devote to my show now that we're without childcare," she shares.
Hein's dream is hardly unusual. She's one of the millions of people whose daily lives have been changed, in one way or another, by the coronavirus pandemic. As COVID-19 continues to dominate news coverage and social media feeds, it's no surprise that the pandemic has also started affecting people's sleep routines. Many people are reporting vivid, sometimes stressful dreams during quarantine, often related to job uncertainty or general anxiety about the virus itself. But what do these quarantine dreams mean (if anything)?
ICYDK, the psychology of dreams has been around for centuries, since Sigmund Freud popularized the idea that dreams can be a window into the unconscious mind, explains Brittany LeMonda, Ph.D, a neuropsychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City and Northwell Health Neuroscience Institute in Great Neck, New York. Today, experts tend to agree that having vivid dreams—and even the occasional disturbing nightmare—is pretty normal; in fact, it's almost expected during times of widespread uncertainty. (Related: Why Sleep Is the No. 1 Most Important Thing for a Better Body)
"We saw the same things after the 9/11 attacks, World War II, and other traumatic events that people faced throughout history," notes LeMonda. "We're being bombarded with apocalyptic images of frontline workers in head-to-toe personal protective equipment (PPE) carrying body bags, and with the news and changes in schedules and routines, it's really a perfect storm to have much more vivid and disturbing dreams and nightmares."
The good news: Having vivid dreams isn't necessarily a "bad" thing (more on that in a bit). Still, it's understandable to want to get a handle on it, especially if your dreams are causing noticeable stress in your daily life.
Here's what experts have to say about your weird quarantine dreams, and how you can make sure you're getting the rest you need amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
So, what causes vivid dreams?
The most vivid dreams usually happen during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the third stage in your sleep cycle, explains LeMonda. In the first two sleep cycle stages, your brain activity, heart rate, and breathing begin to gradually slow from waking levels, while the physical body relaxes as well. But by the time you reach REM sleep, your brain activity and heart rate pick back up again while most of your muscles remain more or less paralyzed in stillness, says LeMonda. REM sleep stages typically last 90 to 110 minutes each, allowing the brain to not only dream more vividly but also process and store information throughout the night as the sleep cycle repeats (your body usually goes through about four or five sleep cycles in one night), she explains.
So, one theory behind the increase in vivid dreams during quarantine is an increase in REM sleep, says LeMonda. Since many people's daily routines have totally changed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, some people are sleeping at different times, or even sleeping more than they normally would. If you are sleeping more, that could mean you're also dreaming more because, as sleep cycles repeat through the night, the proportion of REM sleep per cycle increases, explains LeMonda. The more REM sleep you're getting, the more likely it is that you're dreaming frequently—and the more dreams you're having, the more likely it is that you'll remember them in the morning, notes LeMonda. (Related: Does Getting Enough REM Sleep Really Matter?)
But even if you're not really getting more sleep these days, your quarantine dreams could still get pretty wild, thanks to a phenomenon called REM rebound. This refers to an increased frequency and depth of REM sleep that happens after periods of sleep deprivation or insomnia, explains LeMonda. Basically the idea is that when you're not getting proper sleep on a regular basis, your brain tends to slip more deeply into REM sleep on the few occasions you are managing to get a decent snooze. Sometimes referred to as "dream debt," REM rebound tends to affect those who constantly disrupt their sleep schedule in some way, adds Roy Raymann, Ph.D, chief scientific offer at SleepScore Labs.
Can melatonin give you weird dreams?
Many people turn to over-the-counter sleep aids or supplements like melatonin when dealing with insomnia and other sleep problems. ICYDK, melatonin is actually a hormone that occurs naturally in the body to help regulate your sleep-wake cycle.
The good news is that taking melatonin early in the evening (and with guidance from your doctor) can help to improve your sleep quality, says LeMonda. Plus, since restful sleep keeps your immune system strong, taking melatonin might also be a good way to stay healthy overall during the COVID-19 pandemic.
That said, there is such a thing as "too much" when it comes to melatonin, cautions LeMonda. If taken during the day, too late at night, or in large quantities, melatonin supplements can wreak havoc on your sleep quality, she explains. Why? Again, it all comes back to REM sleep. An improper dose of melatonin, whether that means too much of the supplement or taking it at the wrong time, can increase your amount of REM sleep—which means more frequent dreams. But, dreams aside, your body needs those other, non-REM stages of sleep to ensure you're well-rested, notes LeMonda. (Related: Is Sleeping In Good for Your Health?)
Plus, since your body already produces melatonin on its own, you don't want to inundate your body's circadian rhythm (aka the internal clock that keeps you on a 24-hour sleep-wake cycle) by taking the wrong dose of the supplement, explains LeMonda. What's more, if you rely on melatonin as a regular habit, it's possible for your body to build up a tolerance, leading you to need more melatonin to be able to fall asleep, she says.
Bottom line: Touch base with your doc before introducing a melatonin supplement into your routine, notes LeMonda.
What do weird dreams during quarantine mean for your sleep health?
Vivid dreams aren't necessarily "bad" for you or your sleep health. What's most important is maintaining a regular sleep routine regardless, and getting at least seven hours of shut-eye per night, says LeMonda.
Her tips: Use your bed only for sleep and sex (meaning your WFH set-up should, ideally, not be in the bedroom), avoid looking at your phone while you're in bed (especially alarming news or other media), and opt for reading a book over low light before falling asleep. Getting regular exercise and avoiding caffeine in the afternoons can also contribute to more restful sleep, says LeMonda. "Additionally, doing the same thing before bed every night, whether it's taking a bath or shower, drinking chamomile tea, or having a quick meditation session, can help to train your body to enter that sleep phase," she says. (Here's how you can eat for better sleep, too.)
That said, dreams can also sometimes bring attention to unresolved sources of anxiety, which you may not know how to cope with during the day, notes LeMonda. She recommends sharing your dreams with friends, family, or even a therapist. Many psychiatrists and psychologists are offering telehealth therapy sessions amid the coronavirus pandemic, so if you're experiencing extreme shifts in mood as a result of your dreams (or other sleep-related issues), LeMonda recommends seeking professional help. (Here's how to find the best therapist for you.)
"At the end of the day, because sleep is linked to immunity and inflammation, it's important that we try to get as good and restful sleep as we possibly can during these times," she says. "To some degree, we're in control of whether or not we get COVID-19 by social distancing and just keeping ourselves healthy, so we can feel empowered that a lot of ways to combat this disease are within our control."