Like many of us around the globe, I have been quarantined in my apartment for almost two months now. Although I am grateful to be healthy and employed, there are areas where I am struggling. Most notably, I’m finding it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep.
I’ll be seemingly fine during the day, and then — bam! — as soon as my head hits the pillow, I am wide away, wracked with anxiety. Some of the anxiety is specific to the pandemic: stress about a news article I read, worries about my children and their mental health, fears about my elderly relatives, and terror about the seemingly endless suffering and death around me. But some of it feels vague — generalized anxiety, or more specifically, a feeling of impending doom. Big sigh.
“Coronasomnia” Is A Real Thing
Clearly, I am not alone here. Almost everyone I know is having sleep issues. Many of my friends have recounted their countless nights of sleeplessness. Some are having bizarre dreams, like where they are back in their pre-pandemic life — going to work or riding the subway — and then become suddenly afraid they are unintentionally spreading the virus to others. Many are having nightmares. I know I’ve had a few.
Even my children have regressed in the sleep department, requiring more help from me to settle to sleep, wanting to come join us in bed when they’re scared. I know this is normal, and I’m happy to give them comfort, but I’ll admit that it can be exhausting at times!
Although the pandemic has only been around for a few months, experts are already seeing the impact it’s having on people’s sleep patterns. A poll released by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) found that large numbers of Americans (36%) are finding that worries about coronavirus are having a profound impact on their mental health.
A majority of those polled (59%) said that coronavirus is “having a serious impact on their day-to-day lives,” and up to 19% of those polled said that stress over coronavirus is interfering with their sleep.
What Is Causing Sleep Issues During the Coronavirus Outbreak?
So what exactly is causing the uptick in sleep problems and insomnia?
Well, it’s probably a little bit of everything, says Philip Cheng, a clinical psychologist at the Sleep Disorders Center at Henry Ford Health System.
“Everything that’s going on right now can make people more vulnerable to insomnia,” Dr. Cheng said. “It’s a vicious cycle: when you lose sleep, your emotions can feel more intense. Your ability to regulate emotions can also become diminished, so existing stressors become more stressful, and the ability to calm down becomes more impaired.”
“Also, as you become more stress sensitive, your own thoughts become a trigger for stress,” he added.
You can say that again — it feels like a never-ending cycle. The sleep deprivation itself makes you stressed, and then the news and uncertainties feel even more stressful. The next night, you can’t sleep again…and on it goes.
As UChicago Medicine points out, there are several key factors that are likely contributing to the sleep issues we are experiencing. It can be helpful to understand these better, because once you can identify your own issues, you can begin to address them.
Triggers for coronavirus-related insomnia, according to UChicago Medicine, include:
- Information overload from news sources and other media
- Excessive exposure to screens; blue light from screen inhibits your body’s natural release of melatonin, which can make it harder to fall asleep
- Loss of daytime routines and structure; less consistent bedtimes and wake times
- Depressed mood and daytime napping can make it more difficult to fall asleep at night
How To Cope With Sleeplessness
It may be easy to say to yourself that your coronavirus-related sleep issues are just something you need to put up with. You may hope that they will just go away when the pandemic dissipates. The problem is, sleep deprivation can have a profound impact on your life, and can even exacerbate mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Especially during a crisis like this, we need all our strength and reserves of resilience.
What can you do to catch as many restful ZZZs as possible, even during a global crisis such as this one? Here are a few ideas:
Stick to a routine
Even when you are working from home, or otherwise on lockdown, keep up your routine. Having regular sleep and wake times can help balance your circadian rhythms.
Limit your exposure to the news
Especially right before bed, stay off the news feed. Have a wind-down time that includes less heavy or frightening topics. Watch a silly movie or sitcom. Read a romance novel. Figure out what simple form of entertainment works for you.
Designate a time to catch up on current events
It might help to have a designated hour, earlier in the day, to binge the news, just so you can stay informed and get your fix. Just don’t do it right before bed.
Decrease screen time before bed
Again, blue light from screens can interfere with your circadian rhythms and decrease your melatonin levels. You may be able to install a “blue light filter” on your phone or other device to address this issue.
Exercise during the day
It’s important to stay active, ideally in the afternoon. Exercise releases “feel good” hormones that can naturally boost your mood and decrease your feelings of anxiety or depression. Exercise also raises your core body temperature, which can help you settle into sleep at night.
Talk it out
Finally, maybe the most important thing you can do is talk to a loved one or a therapist about how you are feeling. Often, and especially during times of crisis, we are on “autopilot,” rushing through our lives, and not really taking a break to “feel the feels.”
I personally find that if I take time to address my feelings each day, either with my husband, friends, or therapist, I sleep much better at night. It’s almost as if I release all the hard feelings so they no longer haunt me as soon as I try to fall asleep.
Essentially, we all need to find a method that works for us — because, as much as coronavirus-related sleep issues are common and an understandable reaction to a very stressful situation, they don’t need to become a nightly occurrence.
We need all of our resources to get through this difficult time, and getting a decent night’s sleep should top the list.