Now that we’re several months into the pandemic — and all the life changes it has brought on — when’s the last time you got a good night of sleep?
Maybe while staring up at the ceiling on one of the particularly bad nights, you wondered if you have insomnia. Whether you do or don’t, persistent sleep troubles in your life are worth addressing. “I think it’s a really important issue now, and it's not only insomnia,” says Yue Leng, an epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco. “It's really all kinds of sleep problems as a result of what’s happening.”
What Is Considered Insomnia?
So much about life during the pandemic can set people up for sleep problems. Unemployment and working from home often upends schedules that get people in and out of bed at dependable times. The flexibility to sleep later than you normally do or incorporate naps into your afternoons, Leng says, can disrupt a sleep-wake cycle that allows for quality sleep at night. Stress or worrying about the pandemic and its consequences could keep you up past your bedtime. Also, sleep problems like insomnia are linked to depression, Leng says. Anyone struggling with one of these issues often faces the other problem as well.
It’s also possible that single events, like caring for a child in the middle of the night, might trigger a few days of disrupted sleep, says Allison Siebern, a sleep psychologist with the Stanford Sleep Medicine Center. Trouble falling asleep and staying that way, or having a hard time focusing during the day, are some of the insomnia symptoms that everyone will experience at one point in their lives.
When the initial event is over and the sleep issues continue — or as Siebern puts it, “when not sleeping takes on a life of its own” — someone is at risk of developing diagnosable insomnia. For health professionals to diagnose a patient with this particular sleep disorder, an individual has to have disrupted sleep for three nights a week over a minimum of three months, as well as dysfunction or stress in their daily lives from the lack of rest.
Tips for Getting Quality Sleep
Meeting the criteria for insomnia and receiving a diagnosis might give you access to certain interventions. But you don’t have to watch the calendar and tally up your sleepless nights to start improving your nighttime rest, Leng says, and nor should you: “Usually we think that the sooner people start noticing the problem, they should get started dealing with it." Disrupted sleep is associated with a higher likelihood of Type II diabetes and heart disease, and there’s evidence that older insomnia patients are at higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
Read more: The Importance of Sleep for Your Body
Thankfully, there are changes you can implement right away to try to get your normal, restful sleep back, Leng says. Avoiding too much alcohol or caffeine helps, as does participating in regular physical activity. Staying regimented about how you use your bedroom can maintain restful sleep, too. Reserve your time in bed only for sleep and sex, and maintain a routine of going to bed and getting up at the same time every day.
Going to see a therapist to deal with your insomnia is an option as well. “By the time someone is reaching out to a professional, they’ve probably been struggling for some time,” says Siebern. One intervention available is cognitive behavioral therapy designed specifically for insomnia — a kind of psychological treatment that helps patients change habits and thought processes interfering with sleep.
A therapist might advise some of the lifestyle changes mentioned above, like a strict bedtime. But a professional such as Siebern may also try to help people reframe how they think about hitting the sack. Consistently sleeping poorly can build anxiety and frustration around bedtime, Siebern says. Our brains, which often push us to imagine the worst possible outcomes, might pull the same trick when we notice we are sleeping poorly. For example, someone might think, “If I don't get sleep tonight, then tomorrow will be bad and I’ll lose my job," Siebern says. Those types of anxious thoughts boost circuits in our brains that help our “fight or flight” responses kick in, and can raise the adrenaline level and heart rate — biological shifts that interfere with sleep.
Sometimes, people are so frustrated by their poor rest that it’s too big of a challenge for them to fight on their own, Siebern says. Talking with a therapist and learning coping strategies can break the cycle. When a patient, for example, finds themselves assuming they’ll get fired for falling asleep on the job the next day, “we can scale back and see how accurate that statement is, and reframe in a more accurate way that isn’t as activating,” Siebern says.
As frustrating as it is to get stuck in a rut of constant bad sleep, it is fixable, Siebern says. “The nice thing about insomnia disorder is that it doesn't mean you always have it.” If someone starts to notice themselves slipping back into the exhausting cycle again later in life, hopefully they will remember the coping mechanisms and deploy them before they find themselves in the doctor’s office again.
Also, know that sleep supplements like melatonin gummies might not be the hack to quality sleep that you're looking for. Leng says "melatonin won’t help" with many of the causes for poor sleep outlined above.