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  • Jan Flynn

Bad Dreams? You’ve Got Company

Photo by Kuma Kum on Unsplash

This post assumes you’re not on the COVID-19 frontlines

If you’re a doctor, nurse, respiratory therapist, ambulance driver, or other healthcare worker; if you work in a pharmacy or a grocery store or a restaurant that’s gone to curbside pickup; or if you’re a delivery driver, or a cop, or you perform any other job that can’t be done from home but without which the rest of us would find our lives unlivable — first of all, you have my deep thanks and admiration.

But this article isn’t really for you. Nobody would be surprised if you’re having nightmares, assuming you’re getting any sleep at all.

It’s for the rest of us who work from the safety of our homes, or who don’t work at all, and whose best response to the COVID pandemic is to keep doing what we’ve been doing for three weeks now — which is, in effect, not much. Stay home. Wash our hands. Keep our distance.

Counter to every instinct we have in a crisis, our best response to this crisis has much less to do with what we do than what we don’t do. And we must keep on not doing it, day after day, week after week, and as we’re beginning to suspect, possibly month after month.

By now, we’re adapting. At least, during the day

We are resilient and resourceful critters, us humans. In a matter of weeks, we’ve adjusted to a life-scape that has changed more drastically than we could have imagined back when the champagne corks popped at New Year’s.

If we still have jobs, we’ve figured out workarounds for not being able to go in. If we have kids, we’ve figured out Google classroom meetups and distance learning and just how much screentime we can allow our progeny before their eyeballs dry out. We’re cooking inventive dishes from our pantries and finding online workout videos to stay fit and sharing funny memes with our peeps to keep our spirits up.

It all feels tepid and ineffective in the face of a world-shaking disaster. But most of us can’t actually see the disaster until we turn on the news, and when we do, we are constantly admonished to do/not do just what we’ve been doing/not doing. So we tough it out, even if it seems like a wimpy form of toughness. We proceed thus, day in and day out, keeping our chins up.

Until we lay our chins, along with the rest of our heads, to rest

One thing the health experts tell us that is very important at a time like this —not that there has been a time like this in living memory — is to get plenty of sleep. It’s key to bolstering our overall health and especially our immune systems.

One silver lining to the coronavirus cloud is that we can ditch the alarm clock if we want to. We don’t have to launch ourselves out of bed in time to beat the morning commute, since there isn’t one, and we don’t have to pry our young ‘uns from their slumber to get them to school on time.

I know there are well-meaning sleep hygiene experts (sleep hygienists? Is that a thing?) who say that we should be keeping our sleep and waking schedules exactly as they were prior to the shelter-in-place orders. I’m sure that’s good advice, but I for one am not bulldozing myself out of the covers at 5:20 AM so I can be on time to my laptop.

All this is to say that many of us are spending more time in bed than we used to. This is probably a good thing, at least for most Americans who are notoriously sleep-deprived. But it also means we are spending more time in REM, or rapid-eye-movement, sleep. It’s during the REM cycles that we’re most likely to dream.

“To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub” — William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene I

Our dreams are getting weirder

We probably don’t dream directly about coronavirus, because we rarely dream directly about anything. Hopefully, we’re not thinking about the pandemic at all by the time we turn out the lights.

I like to read myself to sleep, as does my husband, immersing ourselves in something that has nothing to do with what’s going on in the real world at the moment. As we did in pre-pandemic times, we usually drift off to sleep without any trouble.

Sometime in the wee hours, though, our brains start behaving like writers of rejected episodes of Tales From the Crypt. For instance, last week I perchanced to dream I was setting out my clothes for work the next day, like I always do/did. And it was all good, until some of the clothes detached themselves from their hangers and came straight at me, disembodied and malevolent, wrapping their sleeves and pants legs around me and ROCKING ME BACK AND FORTH —

“Sweetheart, it’s just a dream, you’re safe,” said my husband, rocking me back and forth. “Jeez, honey. You were screaming.”

“The laundry was strangling me,” I whimpered.

Trust me, it was scarier than it sounds.

A few nights later, I was wrested from peaceful slumber by my husband, who began kicking, flailing, and moaning like Jacob Marley’s ghost. Since my husband is an actor with a voice trained to resonate in the second balcony, I practically levitated to the ceiling before I could calm down enough to jiggle him awake.

“You’re okay! It’s only a dream,” I gasped.

“Mmf,” he said. “Zombies. With gray skin. In the bedroom, falling on the bed.”

Now that does sound scary.

Is this happening to you too? Blame it on the pandemic

We may be able to reason with our daytime brains. We can convince ourselves that yes, there is a real and present danger to all of us, but it’s one we can neither flee nor fight, except with preventative measures and feeble things like gloves and masks, assuming we can find any, but we’ll probably, hopefully, be safe if we just stay put.

Our nighttime brains are having none of it. If we won’t take action against an invisible enemy, if we won’t probe beneath our smiling surfaces to face the building, simmering dread down there and ramp it up into howling, kicking fear, so it can be discharged — well, our dreams will do the job for us.

So what do we do about it?

This is where I should launch into all the standard sleep hygiene advice: establish a comforting bedtime routine, stay away from electronics, don’t watch the news right before you go to bed, or guzzle coffee or tequila shots, etc., etc.

And really, that is all very wise. You do need your rest right now, and you probably need more than you think you do. Even if you’re not on the frontlines of this crisis, it has upended your life too, and you’re dealing with a lot.

I suggest compassion — for yourself, struggling to do the right thing even if it feels like it’s not nearly enough — and for everybody else who is doing the same thing while trying to put a good face on it — and for your nighttime brain, which despite its chamber-of-horrors coping strategy is really just trying to take care of things for you.

Tell it you appreciate the heads up, but you’ve got this. Get yourself a drink of water, turn your pillow over to the cool side, and get back to sleep. You have another day of sheltering in place ahead of you and you need your strength.

Sweet dreams.

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