Pandemic sleep story No. 1:
Andrea Vitalich is a King County senior deputy prosecutor in the Sexually Violent Predator Unit.
“I have always been an intermittent insomniac, but now I wake up between 2 and 4 a.m. almost every morning and usually cannot get back to sleep for at least two hours because my mind is racing,” she says.
Vitalich says her pandemic dreams have been “a lot more vivid and strange than I remember in the past.”
Like the one about desiccated corpses. That’s the kind of dream you do remember long after waking up.
“For some reason, a friend of mine I had known through work and I were renting an apartment. The choices were between two apartments, and one was offered at $600, which is incredibly cheap, and the other was $300,” she says.
Just one condition for the $300 one.
“You had to live with two desiccated corpses in the crawl space. It was a large crawl space with one of those hinged doors. The mummified corpses were sitting at a table like they were having coffee. Then we had a housewarming party, and everyone wanted to see the corpses.”
How’s your sleep been this past pandemic year? Your dreams?
Has a candy-colored clown tiptoed into your room, sprinkled stardust and whispered, “Go to sleep, everything is all right?”
Not quite? More like intense CinemaScope weird dreams that catapult you into David Lynch-Blue Velvet-Twin Peaks territory? Then, it’s 3 in the morning. Then 4. Still awake.
Just as COVID-19 has swept the globe, so has its impact on sleep.
Americans already had chronic sleep problems. A 2006 study from the Institute of Medicine Committee on Sleep Medicine and Research said 50 million to 70 million had sleep issues — that’s 17% to 24% of the population that year.
COVID-19 made those problems worse.
A comprehensive study of sleep during the pandemic reviewed 44 research papers involving 54,231 participants in 13 countries, including the U.S., China, Mexico, India and a number of European countries. The increase in sleep problems was dramatic:
Around 40% of participants had trouble sleeping, said the February 2021 study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. That broke down into 75% of COVID-19 patients, 36% of health care workers — and 32% of the general population.
Professor Michael V. Vitiello, of the University of Washington Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, is one the study’s authors.
“This increase was particularly striking in young adults and females,” he says, “an intersection where the risks of anxiety symptoms, depressive symptoms and sleep problems are high.”
Why young adults? “They’re more responsive to social isolation. Peer stuff is important to them. They’re not as developed as older adults in coping skills,” says Vitiello. When they can’t hang out with friends, he says, “That takes away a big part of their lifestyle.”
Why women? “Women tend to report greater sleep disorders, anyway,” says Vitiello. “Women tend to have higher rates of anxiety and depression.”
And, no, he can’t answer why women have those higher rates. “If I knew I’d get the Nobel Prize.”
But, he does note that along with young adults, women are represented heavily in the health care workforce “or doing a lot of public contact work, and more likely to catch COVID.”
Pandemic sleep story No. 2.
Ava Zatanas is a Seattle musician. She managed to combine Donald Trump and COVID-19 in a dream.
“You can laugh silly, but at the time last year, it was terrifying. I was in the Oval Office with Donald Trump with some other citizens. He was already inoculated, and he was spraying the virus directly into our faces because we were political dissidents. We were powerless and couldn’t do anything,” she says.
Along with disrupted sleep, the pandemic brought bad dreams.
When over 1,000 people responded to a 2020 online survey done by Brazilian medical researchers, they reported an increase in nightmares more than once a week from 9% to 25%. Published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, the October 2020 paper was titled, “Mental Violence: The COVID-19 Nightmare.”
The trouble hasn’t necessarily translated to more people seeking professional help.
The Harborview Sleep Medicine Center continues to get more than 10,000 visits a year, a number that includes repeat visits by the same patients, says center director, Dr. Nathaniel Watson. The Sleep Disorders Clinic at Virginia Mason also says patient numbers have stayed the same.
Certainly, none of the people who responded to our call-out asking readers about pandemic sleep say they turned to clinics.
Says Vitalich, “I have always thought of sleep clinics as where you go for potentially life-threatening conditions like sleep apnea, not chronic intermittent insomnia.”
Now for some people, the pandemic has not been all bad news for sleep — those still working, for instance, who used to commute.
“You’ve gotten back two or three hours you wasted driving to work,” Watson says. “All of a sudden you don’t have that stressful wake up earlier than you wanted to.”
But for others, “worrying about a job, knowing someone who contracted the virus, all those mentally distressing occurrences on top of typical schedules disrupted,” he says.
Pandemic sleep story No. 3.
Ian Macleod, of Seattle, is a freelance photographer mostly unemployed during the pandemic.
He tells about a pandemic dream: “I’m sure you’ve heard of, if not seen, spider crabs before; they’re man-sized sea bugs that, if you have arachnophobia, are both figuratively and literally a nightmare. But in this dream, they were small and spider-sized, and coming in through gaps in the walls and under the doors by the hundreds.
“What was more distressing than the spider-crab hybrids themselves was the sheer number of them, and the futility of trying to squash them all as more made their way inside. It was a bit cartoonish, I would step on some and more would appear, but they didn’t fill up the room like that snake pit scene from ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark.’ I was alone at home in this dream, and I don’t remember my cat being a part of it. I could have used the help. … I woke up with my heart racing, but they didn’t harm me in the dream.”
Another recent dream involved patches of black hair growing on his naturally blond styling.
“It was now a black-and-brown leopard print,” says Macleod.
Another one placed him in Alabama, a state he’s never been in. He was inside an old-style Denny’s-type cafe. Another customer, a man, was singing. The dream was “in full color,” says Macleod, “orange and yellow.”
He’s making an effort not to drink in the evenings, not more than a glass or two. “You wake up with your heart racing in the middle of the night,” says Macleod.
In the pandemic era, frequency of alcohol consumption has increased 14%, according to responses from 1,540 adults, according to a study published in September 2020 in the JAMA Network (Journal of the American Medical Association).
Professor Antonio Zadra is in the psychology department at the University of Montreal, and co-author of the recently published “When Brains Dream.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, he says, when the public was first seeing the virus illustrations of a spiky glob, that image was incorporated into dreams. He says people were describing dreams about “balls with tentacles coming out of them.”
“Many dreams, including pandemic dreams, have an unusual, bizarre core theme,” he says. “The brain is often asking, ‘What if?’ Instead of linear thinking, it has divergent themes. The dreaming brain doesn’t show us things that have happened. It tells stories. Helps make sense of current experiencing by linking them in various ways to our past to better prepare us for the future.”
“Maybe they read something in the paper or saw a 20-second segment on the morning news,” says Zadra. Maybe it was because of a photo of a massive lineup of COVID-19 coffins in Brazil. That gets woven into a dream, he says.
Pandemic stories No. 3, No. 3a, No. 3b and lots more with the same basic scenario.
Emily Gonzalez, of Seattle, has the title of scientific affairs manager for a food supplement company.
When I asked readers to tell me about their pandemic sleep and dreams, hers was among numerous responses that had the same basic scenario.
“For the last yearish, I have been having nearly weekly nightmares where I find myself in a crowded place — once it was in Grand Central Station — and I suddenly realize I am not wearing a mask and nobody around me is wearing a mask. I freak out but can’t find a mask to wear and nobody else seems particularly bothered. This is usually the point at which I wake up, breathing hard,” she says.
Here are others describing masks in their pandemic nightmares.
“When I have dreams (that I can remember) they are vivid and leave me physically exhausted. Many have been of dead people (family members) standing without speaking but trying to hand me a mask.”
“I show up somewhere and no one is in a mask except me, but I can’t leave the situation and I am silently freaking out about all the masklessness.”
“I regularly have dreams about being at a party, gathering, school, etc., except realizing I’m not wearing pants or whatever the trope is, I realize no one is wearing a mask. The dreams take a turn and suddenly revolve around anxiety and fear about catching COVID.”
Sure, you can be a renowned researcher on dreams, understanding what is going on. The brain doesn’t care. Zadra says he’s had mask dreams.
“In one I had last week, I went into a store and I was the only one wearing a mask. ‘I’ve got to find the manager. This is not acceptable. It’s dangerous.’ The place was really crowded so I ended up leaving,” he says.
Pandemic sleep story No. 4.
Bret Gravett is a Seattle general contractor.
Contractors have been doing well during the pandemic. Lots of remodels.
Gravett’s sleep has gotten better recently, but for much of the pandemic, he says, “I have been falling asleep much earlier than usual, around 8 p.m., and then waking up nearly every night about 6 ½ hours later. So generally from 3 to 5 a.m. I will catch up on Netflix because I’m wide-awake and then fall back to sleep about an hour before my alarm goes off.”
How was it, going on less sleep?
“I’m driving around construction sites. If you have a deadline, you find that energy. It’s a different type of adrenaline,” he says.
The National Institutes of Health says getting less than seven to eight hours of sleep a night can lead to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and hypertension, anxiety, depression and alcohol use.
At least, driving around, Gravett was exposed to natural daylight, not that it apparently helped with his circadian rhythm.
Dr. Anand Gersappe is medical director of Swedish Sleep Medicine program. He explains what the lockdowns did to our brains, and our internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle and repeats about every 24 hours.
“In the front of the brain is the hypothalamus, which contains the circadian clock. When light enters our eyes, it triggers a response in our brains to keep us awake, with the absence of light at night making us sleepy,” he explains.
But, stuck at home, we were getting lower levels of light; plus, at night, we were spending more time on smartphones, computers and watching TV. So, says Gersappe, that Netflix movie could have been triggering a “delayed sleep syndrome.”
He recommends settling down with a book and soft light at least an hour before bed. Stop texting. Stop scrolling through TikTok. Click “shut down” on your computer, you Twitter addict.
Pandemic sleep story No. 5.
Ellen Kuwana, of Seattle, is a freelance science writer and editor. She had been in charge of scientific communications for a creative agency, as well as starting WeGotThisSeattle.co, a community effort that’s delivered food and coffee to more than 20,000 health care workers.
She decided to cut back on her 90-hour workweek. “It was not sustainable,” she says.
Being a science writer, Kuwana couldn’t help but try and find out everything she could about this virus. The more she did that, the more anxious she became.
“I was on Twitter until 2 or 3 a.m., reading all I could from China and Italy (which were in the early pandemic news) . . . Recently, I’ve been reprioritizing sleep, forcing myself to shelve my phone at 12:30 a.m. . . . I quit caffeine after 12 noon and often take a bath to try and wind down and quiet my brain.”
So Kuwana is taking the advice from the NIH on sleeping during the pandemic, such as avoiding caffeine late in the day.
Still, there are anxiety dreams.
A recent one was about a kindly person offering to adjust her mask, Kuwana thinking how nice that was.
“Then once they are right in my face and I realize that they aren’t wearing a mask!”
In our dreams, this pandemic sure is playing a lot of mind games.