With everything happening in the world right now, anxiety dreams are on the rise. Experts weigh in on how to get a better night's sleep.

By Elizabeth Yuko
June 08, 2020

Though we may have started 2020 with high hopes, the year has been one challenge after another so far. Anxiety really started to climb along with the death toll from COVID-19, and has been an issue for many for the past few months. Adding to that is the more recent acts of police violence and subsequent demonstrations around the country. Whether or not you realize it, all of this impacts the quality of your sleep—and that includes your dreams. In fact, if you’ve noticed that you’ve been having particularly strange dreams since the beginning of the pandemic, you’re not alone. But why is this, and is there anything we can do about it? We spoke with several experts to find out what you need to know to get a better night’s sleep.

Why do we dream at all?

Before we get into our weird stress-related dreams, let’s talk about why we dream in the first place. In short, we don’t really know. "People have been trying to understand dreams for centuries,” says Ravi Shah, MD, a psychiatrist at Columbia University and the chief medical officer at Mantra Health. “Freud said that dreams represent ‘the day’s residue.’ That is, we typically dream about things that are at least partially related to something that has happened in the last 24 to 48 hours, or something that we are anticipating.”

We do know that most dreaming occurs during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, and that the brain is very active during REM because that’s when it processes stress and painful emotion, according to Britney Blair, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist, sleep expert, and co-founder and chief science officer of Lover, a sexual wellness app. “It’s almost like it’s digesting something toxic,” she explains. “With the current levels of stress, isolation and distress, the emotions that flood the subconscious during REM sleep are high and more intense.”

According to Dr. Shah, dreams are a way to better understand our unconscious—yes, even the weird ones. But instead of looking at strange dreams as a negative symptom, he recommends trying to lean into them and learn something from them. “Think about the dream and any associations that it brings up,” he says. “We need not fear our unconscious nor our dreams as they provide insight into what’s on our mind.”

Why are our dreams especially odd right now?

Though typically, most people know that others don’t really want to hear about their dreams, since the start of the global pandemic, it appears to be a more frequent topic of conversation—probably because it’s something so many people are experiencing.

Right now, everything in our lives is different than it was a few months ago. “Our brains don’t necessarily have the downtime that they used to have,” says Rachel O'Neill, PhD, a clinical psychologist and director of clinical effectiveness at Talkspace, a mental health therapy app. “Pre-pandemic, we generally had a sense of routine in our lives—much of which involved activities outside of the home and space away from our thoughts and feelings.”

But because of the pandemic and other stressors, many people are in a constant state of emotional arousal, O’Neill explains. “We’re also consuming more media, which means that our brain is being asked to process content on a near moment-to-moment basis but without the ability to really be present with what we are experiencing,” she says.

We also need to keep in mind that dreams are often a reflection of our subconscious mind. “Given that a lot of pretty unprecedented events have occurred over the past few months, it is not surprising that many people are experiencing weird dreams,” says Pavan Madan, MD, a psychiatrist with Community Psychiatry. “Part of it is control. Most people have had almost no control over how the pandemic has spread and affected their lives.”

And although cognitively, we understand and accept the public health recommendations, like wearing a face mask in public and practicing social distancing, and what we can do to protect ourselves from the virus, our mind does not like to deal with things that it cannot control or predict. “Another part of it has to do with anxiety,” Dr. Madan explains. “Even if we are not consciously thinking about it, many people are anxious about yet another bizarre crisis that is beyond their control. It is possible that our minds are now weaving possible absurd scenarios that can play out, perhaps to prepare us in case we face another crisis.” Plus, with so many people out of work or working from home, and not traveling or socializing as much as they used to, we’ve had fewer distractions to occupy us and more time to reflect on our lives and what’s going on in the world. “These reflections may also be playing a role in bringing strange thoughts and dreams,” he adds.

What can we do about these anxiety dreams?

You’ve probably heard the term “sleep hygiene,” and according to Wayne Pernell, PhD, a psychologist and sleep expert, now is the time to put it into practice if you haven’t already. Nothing involved with having good sleep hygiene is new or surprising—it’s all the usual stuff we know we should be doing, like not exercising a few hours before going to bed, avoiding alcohol, and limiting screen time before hitting the sack. But what is especially helpful about the practice, Pernell says, is recognizing the control that you actually have over your sleep, even if it’s limited.

Also, as Dr. Madan notes, acceptance is the first step in dealing with these types of dreams. “We must acknowledge that these are a result of the stressful times we are in,” he says. “Take good care of yourself and try to lower your stress level. Try to talk through about your thoughts with a loved one or a therapist. The more we process these thoughts consciously, the less they might bother us at night.”

If you wake up in the middle of the night with a pandemic nightmare, O’Neill recommends trying to take some deep, calming breaths, reminding yourself that you’re OK, and focusing on the falling back to sleep. “You can count backward from 1000, think about something that brings you happiness, or turn on an audio recording of quick sleep-focused meditation,” she says.

If your nightmares continue, or started long before the pandemic, Blair says that you may want to look into imagery rehearsal therapy (IRT), working with a behavioral sleep specialist. IRT is a cognitive-behavioral treatment designed to reduce the number and intensity of nightmares, and is frequently used for people with recurring nightmares resulting from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If you want to try something similar on your own, O’Neill uses a technique with her clients that involves rewriting the narrative of a dream or nightmare the morning after you have it, so that you feel a bit more control over the experience of having that dream.

With everything being so strange and difficult now, getting a good night’s sleep is more important than ever. Anxiety dreams definitely don’t help with that, but at least there are ways we can help ourselves bounce back after having a nightmare, and better understand why they happen in the first place.