“We’re in the midst of odd times, and that gets worked into our dreams,” says psychologist Dr. Kevin Gilliland

By Julie Mazziotta
April 14, 2020 12:52 PM
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There’s a chocolate Easter bunny chasing you down the street. Or you’re desperately needing to find the right shoes for your high school prom — 20 years after graduating. You finally meet your cousin (on your dad’s side), and it’s Nick Jonas — social media is filled with people talking about the odd dreams they have these days, while staying home during the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. That is, if they can get to sleep at all.

Strange, vivid dreams and insomnia are common right now as everyone deals with the constant stress of living during a global pandemic.

“These are really stressful times whether it’s us personally who are affected, or the people we are close to,” says Dr. Kevin Gilliland, a clinical psychologist, director of Innovation360, an outpatient resource center, and member of PEOPLE’s Health Squad. “We are surrounded by uncertainty.”

Only Dreaming

It doesn’t matter if it’s during a pandemic or normal life — sleep researchers agree that “quite a bit of the content of our dreams comes from our daily life,” says Gilliland. And now, while our days are filled with “thoughts and feelings that could include sadness, oddness, feeling out of place, fear, relief, quietness, loneliness, boredom, newness — and that’s just in the last hour,” they will naturally creep into dreams.

“We’re in the midst of odd times and that gets worked into our dreams,” he says. “Our minds are busy during the day trying to filter out our worries or concerns or even our desires and when we sleep, that part of our brain that filters relaxes a bit and those things come to the surface.”

“Our dreams are often our unconscious coming forward,” Dr. Lori Whatley, a clinical psychologist and author of Connected and Engaged, tells PEOPLE. “These are odd times and whether we are conscious of it or not, we are feeling uncertain.”

Gilliland adds that our minds also seem to try and solve the problems we worry about during the day while we sleep, but they can go off track.

“Our minds can still think and feel, but the logical and rational part of our mind seems to be less available than when we are awake,” he says.

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It’s tough to change what the brain will dream up, but it can help if people lean in and accept the stress that they’re feeling right now.

“Denying our feelings and fears doesn’t usually help us, and avoiding anxious things can make them worse,” Gilliland says. “We may do better by simply acknowledging our feelings, our fearful thoughts, and then settle in to try and have the best day possible. You may find that your fearful dreams become less fearful.”

This can also help with kids who are struggling with nightmares.

“If we talk to our kids about what is going on in the world it can help them process it,” says Whatley. “These are uncertain times and we are all feeling a bit off right now so talking about it is essential to processing it and managing the different emotions we are experiencing. Keeping it all inside could lend to it coming out at bedtime through insomnia or odd dreams.”

Gilliland adds, though, that people shouldn’t worry too much about the odd dreams.

“If you find yourself paddling a chocolate donut down a river of lava to get away from a giant bug, you’re probably doing just fine. It’s just a really crazy time.”

Falling Asleep

For those struggling to get to sleep at all, it goes back to the same issue — it’s tough to fall asleep when our minds are filled with the stress of the day (or week, or month).

“It’s usually a noisy or busy mind that keeps us from falling asleep, says Gilliland. “Right now, everything has been shaken at the most basic level — our health, our jobs, our school, our family, our friendships, our religion, our finances. Sleep is often where we begin to realize and acknowledge that we’re going through a lot.”

And overdoing it on caffeine, food and alcohol — especially close to bedtime — can also throw off sleep patterns.

Gilliland and Whatley recommend rethinking the nightly routine.

“Start by making sure your room is at a good temperature, block out light from the outside, don’t get in bed until it’s time to sleep, and limit caffeine before bed,” says Gilliland. “If you’ve done all that and still struggle, try some relaxing things before bed. Take a warm, relaxing shower or bath, listen to some soothing and quiet music, light a candle that has a scent you enjoy, and put on something clean and comfortable to sleep in. There are a lot of apps that have soothing sounds or meditations that help with sleep. Just keep trying new things until you find what works for you.”

And for those who wake up in the middle of the night — which can happen when the brain goes into a stage of light sleep about four or five times a night — and can’t fall back asleep, try getting out of bed and read in low light or listen to quiet music.

Gilliland says that these issues shouldn’t be pushed aside right now.

“Sleep is really critical to our emotional and physical health and it’s incredibly vulnerable to daily stress,” he says. “Don’t dismiss sleep problems, they’re a big deal.”

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. To help provide doctors and nurses on the front lines with life-saving medical resources, donate to Direct Relief here.