My COVID-19 dreams aren't just weird, they're keeping me up all night

If you're sleeping worse and dreaming about the pandemic, you're not alone. And they've got a name for it: coronasomnia.

Kent German Former senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
Kent German
6 min read
Sarah Tew/CNET

I can't describe how excited I was to go to a bar a month ago. After a year of coronavirus lockdowns and making simple cocktails at home, I was thrilled at the chance to enjoy a professionally made drink, catch up with long-missed friends and savor the mental stimulation of just being out in public.

Sadly, though, I wouldn't be so lucky. When I arrived at the bar, I learned that all patrons were required to wear floppy clown shoes. You could rent them at the door -- just like you do with bowling shoes -- but they didn't have any in my size. I begged to be let in, but the bouncer was unmoved. So, home I went, depressed, for yet another gin and tonic on the couch.

OK, that didn't really happen. But I did dream that it happened, and the dream was so vivid, so detailed -- the clown shoes were yellow and blue -- and so weird that it woke me up. With my mind racing about what I had just experienced -- I remember the dream clearly today -- I couldn't fully get back to sleep for the rest of the night. The following workday was not fun. 

In the mythic "normal" times, common jet lag was the usual reason I had a sleepless night. But the anxiety and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought a new pattern of bizarre dreams, most of them COVID-themed, and fitful nights. And I'm not alone. A September study by the journal Frontiers in Psychology surveyed 4,275 people not long after lockdowns began and found that 55% reported pandemic-themed dreams. And while just over half of respondents said they were sleeping more since the world changed, the study also found a 28.6% increase overall in waking up during the night. Insomnia can stem from a multitude of factors, but we can largely blame "coronasomnia," as some researchers have called it, on how much the lockdowns, isolation and health worries over the pandemic have transformed our lives.

We  sleep  best when we're feeling serene, says Dr. Rafael Pelayo, a sleep medicine specialist and clinical professor at Stanford University. But periods of uncertainty, like when you know have to get up earlier than usual or you're coping with a pandemic that has killed more than 2.85 million people worldwide, can upend that dynamic. 

"When you're in a safe place, the brain will get as much sleep as it can. Because sleep is a priority," Pelayo says. "If you're in a state of uncertainty or danger, the brain will still sleep, but as lightly as possible."

Life is but a dream (and vice versa) 

Sleep problems and COVID dreams aren't necessarily happening at the same time for everyone, but they can feed off each other. If you have restless sleep because you're anxious about rising case numbers in your community, you can also dream about having that anxiety. And that in turn can interrupt your sleep.

Pelayo described it another way. "There's a saying that I use a lot, that your life's reflected in your sleep, your sleep is reflected in your life," he said. "That's why your state of mind matters … the day and night go together in our thoughts and our behavior."

When we spend our days thinking about masks, respecting social distancing measures and yearning for a post-pandemic life, it's natural that dreams will be filled with such imagery. The possibilities are endless: A quick Google search for "Covid dreams'' reveals a huge variety, and IDreamofCovid.com has an engaging list of corona dreams people experienced early in the pandemic.

Though some people report having more nightmares in the past year -- the Frontiers in Psychology study showed an 26% increase among its respondents -- that hasn't been the case for me. That's not to say my COVID dreams haven't been disconcerting at times, but they haven't been of the falling or being chased by a serial killer kind. 

Three weeks ago I dreamed my husband and I had driven to Las Vegas for the day (don't ask how that's possible from Oakland, California) only to discover that all of the restaurants did maskless indoor dining only (takeaway was outlawed, apparently). Then there was the night I dreamed that I was finally able to go on a relaxing cruise somewhere sunny, but the only food available onboard was french fries and white rice. Terrifying? No. Bizarre and a bit unsettling? Sure.

More interestingly is that in early February, just when vaccines began rolling out and a light at the end of the COVID tunnel finally began to flicker, my dreams shifted from the pandemic (like being on a packed never-ending subway ride without a mask) to post-pandemic (like dreaming about trying to schedule a vaccination). It was as if my anxieties had shifted from what the pandemic could bring to what would come with the long-hoped-for magical future. 

That kind of shift isn't surprising to Pelayo. Your dreams and restless sleep can reflect not just ongoing anxiety, but also how your stressors are changing. "In the beginning of the pandemic we had no idea what to expect. There may be some randomness to the imagery [of your dreams], but interpretation of the dream and how we think of it fits our lives is where people get insight and thinking about themselves."

We didn't discuss what my dreams could mean, but Pelayo did ask if I'd experienced any big changes in my life recently. I didn't have much to go on there -- outside of adopting a dog, little has changed since March 2020 -- so I tried a few dream interpretation sites for fun. DreamMoods.com, for example, says wearing the wrong shoes can mean I'm in for a hard life, and eating rice suggests happiness and tranquility at home. 

More sleep, but not better

Pelayo and I did talk about why I seem to be dreaming more and then remembering my dreams so clearly. Dreams dominate our sleep in the last third of the night, he said. I haven't changed my bedtime during the pandemic, but by not hitting the gym in the morning or commuting, I'm sleeping longer during my most dream-heavy time.

"That's perfect for more dreaming," he said. "Usually the way to get people to have more dreams is to give them a call sleep extension, give them more time to sleep." 

Extending your sleep, and choppy sleep in general, also will make you more aware of your dreams. But that's not necessarily a good thing. While researching dreams after he helped identify the structure of DNA, Francis Crick in 1983 described dreams as garbage to be discarded from memory. By remembering them, you're just bringing the garbage back into your mental house.

Pelayo said that's not a current idea in sleep, but there are schools of thought that believe dreams are meant to be forgotten. He cited people with post-traumatic stress disorder who have a hard time forgetting experiences. For them, the nightmares they're having are reinforcing their memories because they're dwelling on them. 

"Most of the time dreams are forgotten, you have to actually spend some time when you're awake to create the memory," he says. "If you think about a dream, then you create an awake memory of it. And that's fair game for future dreams, because anything used in your memory could be part of a future dream."

So far at least, my weird COVID dreams haven't started repeating nor have they spilled into each other like a bingeable Netflix series. But I continue to not sleep as well as I did pre-pandemic, with my dreams or a restless mind about something I forgot to do that day usually getting in the way.

To help ease my brain into sleeping, Pelayo suggests spending time alone with my thoughts away from my bedroom before I get too tried. As I think about things I want to remember, from picking up milk the next day to planning a holiday for when it's really safe to travel again, write them down. It's healthier to expend that mental energy there instead of when you climb into bed.

"If you're in bed thinking, 'I forgot to do this, I forgot to do that,' you're giving your body mixed signals," he said. "I'm in bed trying to sleep. But I'm also telling my brain to remember this piece of information. It's like spinning your wheels."

I hope this exercise works because I need to press the brake pedal on my mental wheels. A few nights after the clown shoe dream, I dreamed I was waiting to see a movie in an actual theater. I was a little freaked out that no one was wearing a mask, but was more perturbed that we all had to root through a box of funny hats and pick one to wear. Forget being that close to strangers … how could we see possibly the screen when everyone wears a hat?

Cinderella sang that a dream is a wish your heart makes. In this case, I hope not.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.