It’s been more than three months since Los Angeles, where I live, locked down to help prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. It’s also been three months since I’ve had a good night’s sleep without pharmaceutical intervention. I don’t think my pandemic insomnia is a coincidence, either—and a sleep doctor agrees.
Behavioral sleep-medicine specialist Shelby Harris, PsyD, author of The Women’s Guide to Overcoming Insomnia, says many people began having trouble with their sleep when the pandemic hit. She says this was likely initially due to an increase in stress. “When stress happens, our bodies have a natural reaction to not sleep,” Dr. Harris says. “Think about fight or flight—that’s basically what our bodies are doing. They look at [the pandemic] like it’s a lion [about to attack] and as a result, we get hypervigilant and have trouble sleeping.”
After a few weeks, Dr. Harris says a percentage of these people returned to their typical sleep patterns (vivid dreams aside, which she says are disproportionately common right now); however, there remains a significant subset of individuals for whom sleep has not normalized. This continued disruption, Dr. Harris says, has less to do with anxiety and more to do with routine. “Yes, there are stressors, but there are also behavioral changes,” she explains.
For example, many of us have taken to staring at screens—TV, phone, etc.—later and later into the evenings. Much of this media consumption involves news or social media, too, which causes our minds to race and makes it harder to fall asleep. As a result, our actual bedtime gets pushed back, which can then delay wakeup times, as well. “You’re sleeping in in the morning trying to catch up for lost sleep at night because you don’t have to necessarily get up to go to work at the same time as you used to,” she says. Rising later then makes it more difficult to go to bed on time, and the cycle continues.
Failure to sleep at night may also be leading to daytime naps and/or increased reliance on coffee, neither of which are particularly helpful when it comes to falling asleep at night. A decrease in exercise—whether due to sleepiness from pandemic insomnia itself or adopting a more sedentary lifestyle as a result of staying home more to reduce the spread of COVID-19—may also be exacerbating pandemic insomnia. And then there’s self-medication in order to aid sleep via alcohol, cannabis, and over-the-counter or prescription meds.
Dr. Harris says all of the above behaviors, alongside fear of not sleeping or stress around sleep, snowball to perpetuate pandemic insomnia. Below, she shares her tips for getting your sleep back on track, pandemic be damned.
6 sleep-doctor-approved for saying goodnight to your pandemic insomnia
1. Return to routine
“Be consistent with bedtimes and wake times—wake time is really key,” Dr. Harris says. And while it might feel nice not to have to use an alarm for the first time in years, she strongly recommends you set one regardless. Then, get up when it goes off, no matter how tired you are.
2. Re-think your news consumption
News can be seriously anxiety-inducing, and anxiety is not a friend to sleep. So, Dr. Harris says you might want to reconsider how and when you dig into what’s happening in the world.
“Be thoughtful about what news source you’re visiting and limit it to 15 to 20 minutes earlier in the day, and that’s it.” —Behavioral sleep-medicine specialist Shelby Harris, PsyD
“I encourage people to think about what they want to get out of the news,” she says. “If you just want to know specific things, be thoughtful about what news source you’re visiting and limit it to 15 to 20 minutes earlier in the day, and that’s it.”
3. Adopt a no-tech-in-the-bedroom rule
Try to power down your screens in advance of bedtime, and definitely don’t bring tech with you into the room with you—whether it’s a phone to scroll on or a TV to watch. If you’ve gotten used to falling asleep to the TV, Dr. Harris recommends you taper yourself off by switching to radio (or a podcast) first, then to white noise, and eventually to nothing.
4. Get light exposure first thing in the a.m.
“We’re meant to have light during the day and darkness at night,” Dr. Harris says. “It’s really that simple, and sometimes we overthink it.” Exposing yourself to natural light first thing in the morning helps to reduce the amount of melatonin your brain produces, which will help you feel less sleepy. “Open the shades, eat breakfast in the light,” Dr. Harris says.
On the flip side of this, you want to make sure you’re not exposing yourself to too much artificial light at night. Turn off overheads in favor of lamps and again, limit your screen exposure.
5. Exercise 4 to 6 hours before bed
The bodies of good sleepers tend to naturally drop in temperature in the hours before sleep, Dr. Harris explains. You can help your body approximate this response by exercising four to six hours before bed, which will raise your temperature temporarily and then allow it to drop in time for sleep.
Dr. Harris notes that this schedule isn’t possible for everyone and that she herself is a morning exerciser. Doing so won’t hurt your sleep—it just also won’t necessarily help it.
6. Reconsider your supplements
Dr. Harris says the goal should really should be to avoid taking any supplements for sleep, simply because most are under-studied. Besides, the gold standard for insomnia treatment, she says, is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), aka suggestions one through five outlined above. “Consistency is really what helps the most,” she adds.
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