Lori Dekko was working on a disaster relief project in another country. Suddenly, someone announced a flood was coming: they all needed to grab supplies from a store and flee. Dekko rushed into the store and began to pack.
“I turn around and everybody is gone. They fled without me,” she said.
Another night, she had to don a head-to-toe haz-mat suit to visit a patient’s home. “The place was crawling with bedbugs,” she said.
These are just two of the nightmares Dekko, a Cedar Rapids psychiatric nurse, has been having during the coronavirus pandemic. She believes these nightmares are due to concerns about her personal safety and that of her in-home patients.
“I usually don’t remember my dreams like this,” she said.
Reports of nightmares, bad dreams and active dreams have been increasing around the world since mid-March, said Dr. Eric Dyken, a neurologist and director of Sleep Disorders Program at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. Sleep specialists worldwide are studying the effects of the pandemic on sleep. In addition to bad dreams, many are reporting insomnia.
Why Good Sleep Is Important Now
You think better and your mood is better and your health is better when you sleep, Dyken said.
Our body’s time clock, called the circadian rhythm, is our timekeeper for sleep patterns. At its most basic, it sets itself to the sun’s rise and set. We really should follow Mother Nature’s normal sleep pattern of seven to nine hours of sleep for most adults, Dyken said.
That’s because the body and brain need time to restore. During deep sleep, our memories move from short-term to long-term storage. We experience emotional relaxation, Dyken said. Deep sleep, also called slow-wave sleep, is necessary for this brain and body regenerative period to occur. Sleep also helps to regulate our moods.
We also need to strengthen our immune system to fight the coronavirus.
“And our immune system is able to recover,” Dyken said. “If we have poor sleep, the immune system is not able to recover.”
Suffering From Insomnia?
There’s anxiety during this pandemic for a million reasons, Dyken said. We’re on edge and under stress. That anxiety is what induces insomnia, he said.
“When you’re wired, you’re not going to sleep well,” Dyken said.
Many Americans had insomnia before the pandemic, Dyken said. A National Sleep Foundation poll found that 30 percent to 40 percent of Americans have insomnia or habitual sleeplessness resulting in problems initiating and maintaining sleep.
When a patient complains of insomnia, sleep specialists assign them to write a diary over two weeks, Dyken said. A sleep diary should track bedtime, getting out of bed, waking up, napping, exercising and alcoholic and caffeinated beverages.
A sleep specialist can review the diary for possible interventions other than expensive health care, Dyken said.
Coronavirus pandemic dreams: that’s what some researchers are calling the phenomenon. These dreams are a way people process the trauma of the pandemic. Some people simply remember their dreams more clearly, while others are dreaming more often.
Dreams are often fantastical representations of trauma in which we re-enact and relive what we experience while awake. Health care professionals are more likely to have dreams in which they re-enact trauma, Dyken said. They may dream of getting the virus and dying.
Dekko said she’s thought about why she may be having so many nightmares and bad dreams.
“I’m just worried that one client is going to have (the coronavirus), and then I’ll go see another client — and bring it home,” she said.
Dyken said a dream mastering technique could help patients learn to control their dreams. This technique involves writing down the bad dream, then rewriting a more positive ending. Rehearsing the positive ending can help the experience during sleep.
General Health Hygiene
Rather than ask a health care provider for sleeping pills to get through the pandemic or any time sleep is disrupted, Dyken suggests ways to get better sleep.
Maintain a regular sleep schedule of seven to nine hours for adults with the same waking and bedtimes every day. Teens need more sleep than an adult, although their natural circadian rhythm is to get sleepy and wake up an hour or two hours later than adults. Children need more sleep than adults or teens and should maintain a sleep schedule.
About an hour before bedtime, turn off the TV. Stop watching videos on your computer or phone. Put cellphones in a room other than the bedroom. Parents should have a contract with their teenagers that cellphones will be removed from their bedrooms so they won’t be tempted by it, Dyken said.
He unplugs at night, often reaching for a comic book from the stack on a bedside table. When he’s ready to fall asleep, he turns out the light.
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“Don’t try too hard to fall asleep. It’s got to be natural,” Dyken said.
Bedrooms Are For Sleeping
When we keep the bedroom as a place for sleep, we connect the room with winding down. When we enter the bedroom, we have an almost Pavlovian reaction that makes us want to sleep, Dyken said.
“You want stimulus control, which means the bedroom is for sleeping. It is holy. It is your place to meditate and relax,” Dyken said.
We’re more likely to stay inside all day, resulting in less exposure to the bright light of the sun. Bright lights of the kind used by people with Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, can fool our system into believing it’s sunlight, but the bright outdoor light is much better, Dyken said. He recommends a late morning or early afternoon walk. The combination of the sun and exercise helps us enter the deep, slow-wave sleep we need.
Do What You Enjoy
There’s a lot to worry about, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Force yourself to look on the bright side while still being empathetic to people who are losing loved ones, Dyken said. We must take care of ourselves because others benefit when we remain healthy.
“You can’t take the weight of the world on your shoulders,” he said.
Rather than obsessively watching the news, he recommends spending that time doing something enjoyable. He walks with his dog and plays guitar.
“My guitar playing has gotten a lot better during this coronavirus,” Dyken said.
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