Poor sleep and vivid dreams - How Coronavirus is screwing with our minds and body clocks

Tired, anxious, moody and confused.

Emotions humans experience in "normal" life, but, we aren't living normal lives anymore. Stressors like these have intensified to a higher state while living day-to-day in a bubble of uncertainty. Now they're seeping their way into our sleep cycles and screwing with internal body clocks.

In fact, a recent poll by the University of Southern California says 40% of individuals feel anxiety about the current pandemic and more people are reporting feelings of uneasiness, anxiety and stress.

And rightly so, the world is looking pretty bleak. The media rattles off minute-by-minute updates on the coronavirus death toll, the growing infection rate and the ever-changing blame game.

Anxiety levels are peaking over the fear of the unknown, fear for the health of loved ones; ourselves, and is now leading to increasing reports of people suffering from fragmented sleep, fatigue, unusual sleep schedules and intensely vivid dreams.

So, could these emotions be caused by the increase in stress?

In short, yes. Sleep disturbances are part of our body's response to trauma and anxiety. What you're feeling is entirely rational, and you're not alone...

Pug wrapped in blanket looking tired from coronavirus dreams
Credit: Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

Cortisol receptors are on high alert, impacting sleep patterns

If you're feeling fatigued lately, it could be related to the emotional impact of the Coronavirus. Research has shown that psychological changes can cause tiredness, like an increase in anxiety and stress.

Whether you're experiencing insomnia, drowsiness or waking up unusually early, sleep-disturbance is a manifestation of stress and a precursor to the fight-or-flight response. Given the virus wreaking havoc in our society, we're in a state of high-alert.

The key here is our 'stress hormone,' cortisol. When we perceive danger, the amygdala (nervous tissue central to our emotional processing) signals cortisol to release, and prepare our bodies to deal with a threat (fight) or walk away (flight).

Most cells contain cortisol receptors, receiving and using the hormone in different ways. If the cause of stress doesn't go away, we remain on high-alert and can experience symptoms of increased heart rate, upset stomach, headaches and tense muscles. It's exhausting for our bodies.

Clinical Psychologist Lucy Johnstone says, "It is entirely normal to have a range of emotional and physical reactions to a threatening situation, which we are all now facing. Reactions, like feeling on-edge, anxious, up-and-down in mood and finding it hard to sleep, are completely understandable."

Energy-sucking habits and your biological clock

Your biological clock (also known as the circadian rhythm) functions as your alertness over the day and is synchronised to match the environmental cycle of light and darkness.

Think back to daylight savings time, that one hour difference in spring can throw a spanner in your sleep pattern for weeks.

When our bodies are exposed to less light, our systems are disrupted. Whether you're waking earlier or sleeping later than before, this can be a result of increased exposure to artificial rays from laptops, mobiles and TVs.

The lack of daylight isn't the only possible cause here...

Cat naps

Those who were lucky enough to be able to work from home are a couple of months in. Coming from someone who has worked from home for almost two years now, you're in the peak of the adjustment, and the temptation to sneak in an arvo cat nap sounds seductive.

Naps, particularly in the afternoon, can diminish your sleep drive. Ivana Rosenzweig says, "The longer we are awake, the stronger our drive is to fall asleep. Prolonged wakefulness with high levels of brain activity leads to a build-up of the by-products such as adenosine (a molecule that helps regulate sleep) and strengthens our sleep drive."

With less activity and more napping during lockdown, the effects on energy levels are noticeable.

Having said that, research has linked naps to improve memory focus and creativity when taken closer to midday. "Light exposure in the morning after sleep is important for keeping biological rhythms going", Goldstein says. "If you do need a few extra hours, a midday nap could be better."

The National Sleep Foundation says 20 minutes of napping is enough to feel restored but avoid napping too close to bedtime.

Pug wrapped in blanket looking tired from coronavirus dreams

Poor posture

Another energy-stealer to look out for is poor posture.

To sit in the same position for an extended period in front of your computer or TV, can drain your body's energy as our bodies associate stillness with nodding off to sleep.

When sitting hunched over your computer or slumped into a couch, your spine adjusts out of alignment, triggering the muscles surrounding it to work harder to compensate. Additionally, your body takes in 30% less oxygen than if you were sitting with correct posture, meaning you aren't just harming your posture, but your bodies ability to absorb the amount of oxygen that it needs to run efficiently.

Next time you're feeling a little energy depleted, check to see your chin is up, and shoulders are back or try some simple exercises to counteract poor posture. Let's be real; we have enough time on our hands to try these!

Working from home during coronavirus infographic correct posture

Food intake

There's no quick-fix for feeling exhausted, stressed or needing to nap.

Keeping an eye on your food intake can help. While seeking comfort in a stressful time, you may turn to foods containing high-sugar content, leading to a surge in energy as your blood sugar spikes but a fast come-down when it drops shortly afterwards.

To maintain energy throughout the day consider increasing your protein sources like meats, lentils, eggs and dairy products. These foods sustain fullness, and you're less likely to snack on a sugary treat. Keeping your energy sources consistent throughout the day will also help to increase your sleep drive.

Working from home during coronavirus eat protein for sustained energy to combat sleepiness

Your circadian clock is more sensitive than you think

Everyone's felt the effects of a rough nights sleep—moody, irritable and reaching for coffee to compensate. Even attempting hit the sack earlier on the weekend thinking you can catch up on sleep.

The thing is, you can't catch up on a "sleep debt."

Research suggests that a person needs four days of rest to make up for just one hour of sleep debt. Dr Cathy Goldstein, Associate Professor of Neurology, says, "It's almost impossible to close that gap over only two weekend nights. The sleep debt accumulates over time."

You need good quality sleep to function well, and with lockdown laws in place, many have had no choice but to opt for weekends at home. This might me mean more sleep for some, for others, falling out of routine could mean less sleep. Rather than heading to bed at your usual time, you might stay up now you have the freedom to catch up on some Netflix series.

This seems harmless at the time; however, Goldstein says that fatigue isn't the only result of a poor sleep schedule; it also disrupts your circadian clock, an internal system regulating hormone levels to promote sleep in the evening and alertness during the day.

Your circadian clock secretes sleep-promoting melatonin around 9:00 pm. The National Sleep Foundation reports that your levels stay elevated through the night before dropping off in the morning.

The ultimate goal here is to maintain your circadian rhythm and get enough sleep on weekdays to avoid the need to "catch-up" on weekends. A few extra minutes of sleep during the week will reveal a dramatic difference, and you'll begin to perform more highly.

Disturbing, vivid dreams during lockdown

In recent weeks, Google search queries for "Why am I having weird dreams", "Covid-19 dreams" and "Coronavirus dreams" have increased.

I have experienced this too. Although, because I already worked from home and my daily routine was hardly impacted, as the weeks in lockdown accumulated my sleep quality dived. I've started experiencing extremely vivid dreams, one being, completely shaving off my friend's hair and eyebrows...

On social media, friends and family reveal they too are reporting intense vivid dreams:

"I dreamt I taught my dog (Bob) to say mama and dada."

"I woke up at 3:00 am after dreaming that my friend and I bought cats and they got into a fight. I held up the cat with its guts hanging out, we went to the vet, but the vet died."

"I had an 'Anna and the King-like' dream where I was a British lady helping an emperor, foiling assassination plots and adventuring around snow-covered mountains. I woke up just before I revealed who the traitor was..."

So, is this a thing, or are we all going mad?

According to Psychotherapist Matthew Bowes, "It's pretty much accepted in the scientific community these days that dreams are a fundamental aspect of the way that we process emotional events. The emotional centres of the brain that deal with working through emotions are 30% more active while we sleep, which seems to support this idea."

"It's no surprise we're experiencing more vivid dreams at the moment. Our world has been turned upside down in an incredibly short space of time, and there is no doubt that for many of us, whatever our circumstances, this is a traumatic shock to our body-mind systems."

Dreams are thought to be the brain's way to process emotions to make sense of what's happening to us. The more in tune we are with our feelings during our waking hours, the more colourful and memorable our dreams are.

In times of stress, our brains release neurochemicals triggering vivid dreams and nightmares as warning signs of anxieties that we might not otherwise perceive in our waking lives.

This stage of the sleeping process is called rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

Patrick McNamara, an associate professor of neurology, says, "We normally use REM sleep and dreams to handle intense emotions, particularly negative emotions. Obviously, this pandemic is producing a lot of stress and anxiety."

During REM sleep, our brains go through an archiving process where memories from the day are consolidated into your long-term memory. With the added memories holding anxiety in conjunction with your minds fear centre (amygdala) this may be causing more distressing dreams.

Our likelihood of experiencing REM sleep is highest when we are about to wake up so, if you're sleeping a bit longer, your potential dream intervals may increase. Dreams are better remembered when one wakes up spontaneously rather than being jarred awake by an alarm.

vivid coronavirus dreams
Credit: Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

Lockdown coping mechanisms to ease stress and improve sleep quality

People's reactions to the pandemic vary, and we are all impacted differently, it's completely normal to experience disturbances like irregular sleeping patterns, vivid nightmares and fluctuation in mood as a result.

Accept how you're feeling and avoid becoming stressed, so you can allow these changes to pass and begin to make positive progress.

Michael R. Nadorff, Associate Professor of Psychology, has some strategies to encourage better rest:

Keep a regular schedule

Keep some structure in your life so you can control what comes next in your day-to-day life, as opposed to letting the hours and days run together.

Go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day, start and finish work at the same time, the same with eating breakfast, lunch and dinner.


Spend some time on mindful exercises like, taking a break and sitting outside for a few minutes in between work tasks. Focus booster and the pomodoro technique is excellent for supporting this by working in 25-minute intervals, followed by 5-minute breaks.

Assign a workspace

Keep the bedroom strictly for sleeping and dedicate an area of your home to work. This encourages your brain to switch from work to home mode; now, the two have merged.

Avoid stressors

Limit your intake of Coronavirus news, especially before bed. Consuming the negative media surrounding the pandemic can be overwhelming, particularly the number of casualties. This will only take a toll on your dreams.

Go easy on yourself

Practice some breathing exercises, read some fiction or listen to a soothing playlist when jumping into bed. These strategies can help to reduce insomnia and will lessen anxious dreams. You can even think about a loved one or a pet, something that makes you happy and would like to see in your dreams.

While this is a very stressful time, it doesn't need to feel that way while you are safe at home, indoors. By practising some simple strategies like these, over time, you can ease the stress and anxiety from your days and come out on the other side of this with a healthy mind and body.