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How to cope with 'pandemic nightmares'

A woman wearing a sleep mask and hugging a pillow.

The pandemic has many people on edge every day. Fear and uncertainty about our jobs, our health and the future are rattling our waking hours. So it's no surprise that some of us are experiencing restless sleep, complete with bad dreams.

While these nightmares may contain no reference to the coronavirus, anxiety about the pandemic may be causing the restless sleep and vivid dreaming.

Why we dream

We still don't know exactly why we dream, according to the American Association of Sleep Technologists (AAST). A leading theory is that our dreams help us consolidate our memories and make sense of what we learned during the day.

But a flood of sad or unpleasant memories can overwhelm our brains, says the AAST, causing strange dreams and waking us up.

Frequent waking after dreams may be part of the reason we remember these vivid dreams more during stressful times, according to HelpGuide. So the more often we wake from dream sleep during the night, the more likely we are to remember what we were just dreaming.

If you're getting tired of waking frequently from bad dreams, there are steps you can take to sleep soundly.

What you can do

First, try to rein in your stress and anxiety. Some things that might help:

  • Practice relaxation techniques. Engage in deep-breathing exercises before going to bed to help you relax and prepare for sleep.
  • Schedule a time to worry. Postpone your worries until a set time during the day. When you feel yourself starting to worry at night, tell yourself you can worry about it tomorrow during a scheduled "worry time."
  • Get regular exercise. Physical activity can help reduce stress and anxiety. It also can increase the amount of time you spend in deep, restorative stages of sleep.

Secondly, engage in good sleep habits. Get up and go to bed at the same times every day, even if you don't have to go to work in the morning. Choose a time for bed when you usually feel tired. This will keep you from tossing and turning, trying to get to sleep.

Finally, adopt healthy daytime behaviors. If COVID-19 disrupted your daytime routines, make new ones. For example:

  • Stay connected with friends and family. Visit often with loved ones using video chat, social media and the phone.
  • Eat a healthy diet. It's easy to slip into bad eating habits when we're depressed or anxious. But comfort foods are often high in sugar and refined carbohydrates, which can disrupt sleep. So eat healthfully. And limit caffeine and alcohol, which also can affect sleep.
  • Nap wisely. Napping late in the day or for long periods of time can make it harder to get a good night's sleep. If you need to nap, limit it to 20 minutes in the early afternoon.
  • Do something you enjoy every day. Play with your pet. Spend time in the outdoors. Engage in a hobby. Adding joy to your life can help you relax and sleep better.

For more healthy living tips, visit the Coronavirus topic center.

Reviewed 1/5/2021

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