Quarantine Dreams—or Nightmares? Tips for Restful Sleep.


Andrew Wyeth, Christina’s World, 1948

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10 Remedies for a Good Night's Sleep

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How is your dreamworld? Many folks have had trouble sleeping during this stressful time, reporting "quarantine dreams" and nightmares. Let's check in with our "night life" and 10 tips for a restful night's sleep.

I've had nightmares occasionally wake me at night—usually just before awakening for the day. They rarely feature any narrative content, such as an event or sequence of events with real people in real landscapes. They would just come on as a frenetic jumble of dynamic phantasmagorical, images, often in garish colors.

I stumble down for my morning coffee, relieved to be awake; but the sensation remain for some time. The nightmares did taper off, mostly because I realized I had to accept them as normal during this time of chaos, change, and uncertainty. Over the past year, I've also learned that this trouble sleeping due to worrying times is not unusual.

So, let's talk about dreams and nightmares. What is the difference? How can we sleep better at night? 

What are dreams?

Dreams are somewhat of a mystery. We used to believe that dreams were hidden desires or suggested ways for self-improvement. 

Today, we know that dreams do have a purpose but it's not to send us messages (which is not to say that we can't reflect on dreams' meanings and have healthy conversations).

Dreaming is more of a way that the body mediates memory consolidation and mood regulation. It's important to get our sleep as being sleep-deprived means we dream less which then affects memory and mood.

What are nightmares?

True nightmares are a different beast. They are related to a trauma, anxiety, or a stresser.

An article in Psychology Today offers a succinct summary;
Some researchers call [nightmares] “threat rehearsals,” where we rehearse the possible threats we encounter in real life; other researchers say that people are working through upsetting events of the day. 

I don’t have any credentials in psychology, but really, why not both? I feel as if my nighttime brain is preparing to respond to tomorrow’s challenges, while simultaneously trying to process the stresses of the day that just passed. Some of us are lacking our normal support mechanisms: interactions with co-workers, workouts at the gym, shopping trips with friends, getting together with family or friends.

We’re also beset by worries that many of us have never or rarely experienced: Are our loved ones safe? How can I shop for basic food and household supplies safely? What alternatives are there when I’ve run out of (toilet paper, flour, etc.) Will things ever return to normal?

Common sense suggests that sleep disruptions, nightmares, anxiety, and other forms of psychological distress may result.


10 remedies . . . for a good night's sleep

Some remedies medical/psychological experts suggest for managing all these new forms of stress include:

  1. Focus on positive elements of their day immediately before bed; catch yourself if you start ruminating.
  2. Maintaining a daily routine, involving household chores, at-home work schedule, exercise, and consistent bedtime and getting-up times. 
  3. Staying away from news updates,TV, Internet, and mobile devices for at least an hour before bedtime. 
  4. Eating as well as possible, given the challenges of getting access to all the foods you’re used to. It’s difficult, but resist the urge to gobble junk food to make yourself feel better.
  5. Setting aside one hour a day for yourself, when you do something specifically to take care of yourself. Curl up with a book. Take a hot bath, or maybe a nap. If you play an instrument, play your favorite music. I’m with 88-year-old former TV newsman Dan Rather, who tweeted:  

    I've been thinking about self care in these times. For me, few things beat a hot soak, something the ancients in societies around the world figured out. Last night, I was in a bit of a mood. I came out of the tub ready to wrestle an alligator. What approaches are you using?
  6. Finding ways to maintain emotional equilibrium. Some people discover or rediscover spiritual practices like prayer or meditation, and practice anger management by learning to let go of minor irritations and blaming or lashing out at others.
  7. When you wake up, do not dwell on disturbing images from a nightmare.  
  8. Start the day with a brief meditation. Deep-breathing exercises are always available. Here’s a good tutorial.
  9. Get outdoors to reconnect with nature; nature has its own healing mechanism.
  10. Finding a way to have fun. It may be as simple as bringing out the old board/card games, doing a jigsaw puzzle, setting up an indoor fitness challenge. Maybe start a new home improvement project that doesn't feel like work.


If you find yourself spinning out of control despite taking measures to protect your emotional well-being, please consult a trusted medical professional. Medical and psychological teleconferences by phone or video-conference are beginning to take the place of office visits, often covered by health insurance.

I love the idea Juliette Kayyem introduced in her article in The Atlantic, of living with the virus each day as our “now normal.”

My friend Jonathan Walton, the dean of Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity, has described our time hiding from, mobilizing against, and then living with the virus as the “now normal,” the simple effort to live each day as if it were typical, knowing that the next day will bring a new round of uncertainty. Our reentry will be slow. There could be another wave. Adaptive recovery is going to last a very long time—and it will not feel normal at all.

Here’s to our now normal—and a good night's sleep for all. 

About The Author

Margaret Boyles

Margaret Boyles is a longtime contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac. She wrote for UNH Cooperative Extension, managed NH Outside, and contributes to various media covering environmental and human health issues. Read More from Margaret Boyles

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