Ever since the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic really hit the US back in March, I've been having issues falling asleep and staying asleep, and I end up waking up tired. And it's no wonder with the fear of my family getting sick, the stress of caring for my kids while trying to work, and my routine being completely flipped upside down. How can I sleep when I feel so emotionally drained? All my friends and family are also experiencing sleep issues, which I've heard referred to as "coronasomnia." I asked sleep experts to weigh in about why we're having trouble sleeping and tips to finally get a good night's sleep.
Why Does the Coronavirus Pandemic Cause Sleep Issues?
The coronavirus pandemic has led to heightened stress and a new level of anxiety for many people. They're worried about themselves or their family members contracting the virus, but many people are also experiencing financial stress, explained sleep medicine specialist Atul Malhotra, MD, board-certified pulmonologist, intensivist, and research chief of pulmonary, critical care, and sleep medicine at the University of California San Diego. He told POPSUGAR, "The lockdown has also led to social isolation and depression for many people."
"Stress and anxiety are little sleep killers," said W. Christopher Winter, MD, author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It, and president of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine. Worrying and having intrusive thoughts can make it hard to quiet the mind enough to fall asleep, and can also cause weird dreams that wake you up without being able to fall back to sleep. Yep, I've definitely been there: lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, endlessly worrying about the kid who sneezed on my kid at school while masks were off during lunch.
While anxiety, fear, sadness, confusion, frustration, hopelessness, and worry about your health, your family's health, your job, and the future are all common emotions that humans experience, anxiety can also progress to catastrophizing, explained psychologist Amy Vigliotti, PhD, founder of SelfWorks. This is when a person always fears the worst, which causes irrational and debilitating thoughts, such as "I'll never survive this." This can affect your day-to-day life, as well as your sleep.
Uncertainty about the future and feeling out of control around these various stresses can contribute to poor sleep, and poor sleep can also worsen anxiety and depression, Dr. Malhotra added. Some patients get into vicious cycles where stress and anxiety disrupt sleep, lack of sleep causes more stress, and then that stress further affects the ability to sleep. If people are self-medicating with sleeping pills or alcohol, he said it can contribute to further issues.
Why Is Lack of Sleep Bad?
Consistently not getting enough shut-eye can lead to productivity and alertness issues, mood swings, low energy, depression, and can affect your relationships and job. Lack of sleep can also harm your health as it's linked to headaches, decreased lifespan, weight gain, and high blood pressure. It can also lower your immunity and increase your risk of getting sick, which is not what we need right now!
How Can We Reduce Pandemic-Related Stress and Get Sleep?
- Follow a sleep schedule: "Recreate your pre-pandemic schedule and stick to it," said Dr. Winter. Don't allow yourself to sleep in or nap during the day to make up for a difficult night, as it will only make falling asleep harder. Going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day will help get your body into a rhythm.
- Schedule meals: Make sure you're fueling yourself with a healthy diet that includes a variety of nutrient-dense foods, antioxidant-rich veggies and fruits, and that you're eating at regular times during the day to establish a reliable schedule your body and mind can count on for energy. A healthy eating schedule can support a healthy sleep schedule.
- Exercise: Sticking to a regular exercise routine can help you feel tired enough to fall asleep and stay asleep. Exercise can also help relieve pandemic-related stress. Even if your gym is closed, find ways to exercise outside or at home, like following along to these workout videos.
- Set up your bedroom like a sanctuary: Make your bedroom as peaceful and cozy as possible with blackout curtains, a white noise machine, a heated weighted blanket, eye mask, sleep crown, and an essential oil diffuser. If your bedroom is calm and inviting, it can help you feel more relaxed.
- Give your brain a break: While it's important to stay informed with what's happening in the world, if it's affecting your stress levels so much that you can't sleep, you might need a break. Turn off the news and social media at least an hour before going to bed to give your brain a break from the overwhelming info that's stressing you out.
- Avoid blue light: Start eliminating blue light from computers and televisions at least an hour before bedtime, said Michael J. Breus, PhD, a clinical psychologist and both a Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a Fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Blue light suppresses melatonin, the hormone that regulates your circadian rhythm, so you can avoid screens altogether to signal to your brain that it's time to relax, or use blue-light-blocking glasses.
- Do something relaxing and joyful before bed: Things like a doing 15-minute relaxing yoga sequence, taking a warm shower, reading feel-good books, and listening to calm music in bed can set your body and mind up for sleepy time. If you can't get thoughts, worries, and fears out of your head, writing them down in your journal can make you feel better.
- Avoid tobacco, caffeine, and alcohol: Dr. Malhotra advises avoiding these to improve your sleep hygiene. Many people think drinking wine or beer at night will make it easier to fall asleep, but it can make staying asleep difficult. Instead of self-medicating with alcohol, he suggests seeing your doctor.
- Try CBD: Full-spectrum CBD may help you sleep, and can help manage everyday stress, said Dr. Breus. Try taking Charlotte's Web Sleep Gummies 30 minutes before bed, which includes CBD and melatonin.
- Meditate in bed: When all else fails, don't be afraid to rest and meditate in bed, suggests Dr. Winter. "Stop judging your success in bed by unconsciousness alone. Sometimes the secret to amazing sleep is learning to embrace your time in bed awake." Enjoying the calm, quiet time nestled under the covers can help you relax enough to fall asleep.
- Try progressive muscle relaxation exercises: Dr. Vigliotti said "it's a good way to release pent up feelings and bodily tension that you're storing," and it can help you wind down before bed. Here's a free guided progressive muscle relaxation on Spotify you can try.
- Take precautions: If you're stressed about getting COVID-19, do what you can to protect yourself and prevent the spread of coronavirus by washing your hands, social distancing, and wearing a mask, said Dr. Malhotra. This will help you feel more in control, which can help you feel safer and less anxious about getting sick.
- See a therapist: If this pandemic has brought up uncomfortable anxiety that's disrupting your sleep and everyday life, Dr. Vigliotti said "having a therapist to talk through your worries and concerns can reduce the time you spend overthinking problems, which can contribute to insomnia." Talking to a professional can help validate your feelings and give you strategies to cope with them.