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The pandemic has done a number on every aspect of our lives, including our sleep. And just like "Zoom fatigue," "the before times," and "doom-scrolling," there's a newfangled term to describe this pandemic-era phenomenon: "coronasomnia," a sleep crisis brought on by COVID-19.
Maybe you're in a bustling café, or a hot, sticky party. Maybe you're at brunch with some friends you haven't seen in forever. You're chit-chatting — enjoying the intimacy of a hand held, a long-overdue hug, a brush of the arm. And suddenly, warmth turns to panic. You reach up to your face. You pat your pants pocket. You lean down and rummage through your purse. You're looking high and low as your heart fills with dread. Where is my mask? Oh my God, why is no one wearing a mask? If this sounds like your type of anxiety dream lately, know you're not alone.
While evidence of coronasomnia is mostly qualitative, sleep researchers are definitely taking note. “It’s a problem everywhere, across all age groups,” Angela Drake, a psychiatry and behavioral health professor at UC Davis, said in a news brief. “Insomnia was a problem before COVID-19. Now, from what we know anecdotally, the increase is enormous.”
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Dr. Deirdre Barrett, a psychologist who appeared on RECLINER's "Pillow Talk" series and author of Pandemic Dreams, explains that even the average person is now having anxiety dreams due to the pandemic. "A few are full-on nightmares of the garden variety — metaphoric horrors standing in for the COVID-19 threat. During disasters, however, it is clear who does have terrible nightmares," Barrett tells RECLINER. "Those who directly experience the horrors."
Those traumatized may suffer from terrible dreams even after COVID-19 is under control. "Post-traumatic nightmares typically replay terrifying daytime experiences. Doctors and nurses who work in the ICU and the ER are having classic PTSD nightmares based on their experience on overwhelmed wards full of dying patients," Barrett explains.
A January 2021 study in the journal Sleep Medicine backs this up. Researcher Li-yu Lin from Nanjing Unviersity's Hospital of Chinese Medicine conducted a study — with help from colleagues at Yunnan Provincial Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Hubei University of Chinese Medicine, and other Chinese medical institutions — on the toll of pandemic stress and anxiety on sleep. The team surveyed Chinese folks living through the height of the COVID-19 outbreak (February 2020) about acute stress, depression, and insomnia.
The survey revealed high rates of clinically significant insomnia (20%), acute stress (15.8%), anxiety (18.5%), and depression (24.5%). Insomnia — aka now as "coronasomnia" — was most severe for people at the epicenter (Hubei province) and those who experienced the biggest threats. As you can guess, that included healthcare workers and management staff on the front lines.
Even if you're not an essential worker, you may be suffering in your sleep. Barrett's solution? Think of dreams you'd actually enjoy. "Perhaps there’s a loved one you can’t be with right now who you’d like to visit in your dreams? Or a favorite vacation spot? Many people enjoy flying dreams," Barrett offers.
"Maybe you have one all-time favorite dream you’d like to revisit with what we call 'dream incubation,' borrowed from the term used at the ancient Greek dream temples. You can suggest to yourself what you would like to dream as you fall asleep."
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If sleeping has been less-than-pleasant lately, no worries. Before bed, visualize the cousin you've been missing, your favorite rooftop bar, your long-distance partner, or your dream vacation. "If images don’t come easily to you, place a photo or other objects related to the topic on your night table as the last thing to view before turning off the light," Barrett says.
"Repeat to yourself what you want to dream about as you drift off to sleep." And even if you can't be out and about the way you'd like to, thanks to the pandemic, at least you can book a getaway behind your eyelids.