How the Pandemic May Be Affecting Your Sleep

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Prolonged stress can make it difficult to fall and stay asleep. Cavan Images/Getty Images
  • An increasing number of people have been reporting sleep disturbances since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
  • Pharmaceutical sleep prescriptions have increased 20 percent over the last year.
  • One doctor has dubbed the current sleep crisis “coronasomnia.”
  • Taking steps to improve sleep habits is important for not just COVID-19 prevention, but for overall health and wellness.

In early February, the United States hit an important milestone: More people vaccinated for COVID-19 than diagnosed with COVID-19.

After a year of mask wearing, physical distancing, income loss, and the deaths of more than 500,000 Americans, this welcome news signaled a potential light at the end of the tunnel.

So why are so many people feeling like they’re hitting a wall now — unable to sleep, work, or function — just as we may be rounding the corner to something a little closer to normal?

There’s no denying the last year has been stressful.

And enduring stress — like so many of us have experienced recently — can have lasting consequences.

“Stress can have a negative impact on sleep,” behavioral sleep medicine provider Lisa Medalie, PsyD, recently explained.

She went on to say that stress is a known trigger for insomnia — trouble falling asleep and staying asleep.

“Stress activates the autonomic nervous system, causing a release of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol,” Medalie, who created DrLullaby, said. “This then causes the heart rate and blood pressure to increase, putting the system into fight-or-flight mode.”

With cortisol pumping though the body, she said falling asleep can be quite challenging.

And when people lose sleep as a result of stress, they’re more likely to experience difficulty modulating thoughts and emotions the next day, contributing to further stress.

It’s a cycle far too many people have likely grown accustomed to over the past year.

But it isn’t just chronic stress that’s impacting sleep cycles. People have also had to deal with inconsistent schedules, homeschooling kids, work loss, financial impacts, and elevated screen time — all of which can contribute to sleep deprivation.

“Our routines and habits have been disrupted,” said Dr. Rhonda Mattox, the president-elect of the Arkansas Medical, Dental, and Pharmaceutical Association and an integrative behavioral health psychiatrist.

“Our downtime away from the kids on our way home has been taken away from many of us. We don’t even get that few extra minutes of just sitting in the car outside the house,” she added.

Instead, she said, life is constantly on the go — especially for single parents and parents of kids with special needs and disabilities.

Medalie said that one of the biggest contributors to this is the lack of consistent daily start times, which leads to decreased daytime structure and inconsistent sleep schedules.

“Sleep schedule consistency is an important element to proper sleep hygiene,” she explained.

But especially for parents who have kids home during the day, establishing sleep consistency may feel impossible as they find themselves trying to catch up with work late into the evening.

And when there’s no set time to wind down or quiet the mind, the body eventually loses track of when it should be asleep or awake.

“Research shows that increased screen time is related to decreased sleep time,” Medalie said. “Especially since the pandemic, we are seeing increased screen time at alarming rates.”

Even before the pandemic, she said studies showed roughly one third of Americans were sleep deprived.

But now, with more kids attached to their screens during the day, and more adults scrolling for news updates and binge-worthy shows to take their minds off pandemic stress — that rate is also increasing.

“My research colleagues have published repeatedly on the problems with electronic use before bed,” Medalie said.

Blue light, she explained, tells our brains to stop producing melatonin. So staring at a screen before bed can be one of the worst things we do when trying to achieve healthy sleep.

And yet… we’re all doing it more than ever right now.

“People are seeming to report more fatigue and ‘exhaustion’ with the pandemic,” Medalie confirmed. “This could be related to insufficient sleep, elevated stress, mood symptoms, decreased exercise, and decreased light exposure with more time indoors.”

In her work, she said they’re seeing a growing number of “new onset” sleep problems, to include lying awake at night, preoccupied with the pandemic.

“Research shows that 58 percent of people are struggling with sleep, and there has been a 20 percent increase in sleep medication use,” she said.

It’s a phenomenon she has dubbed coronasomnia.

“People seem stuck with their minds racing about finances, homeschooling, work challenges, health fears, uncertainty, and struggling to transition into and back to sleep,” she explained.

This often leads to fears of consequences surrounding not being able to function the next day.

That stress contributes to more trouble sleeping, and the cycle continues.

But eventually, prolonged periods of stress and sleep loss result in actual exhaustion.

You’ve probably heard a lot of people in your circle talking about “hitting a wall” recently. You may have even experienced it yourself.

After months of stress and trouble sleeping, you’re suddenly exhausted — sleeping all the time and having difficulty with completing your typical daily tasks.

“It feels like trouble thinking clearly,” Mattox said of exhaustion. “Difficulty remembering things that you ordinarily know, or trouble keeping your eyes open.”

When a person is experiencing exhaustion, she said they may come off as snappy and moody to others. They may even appear to be impaired, as if they’ve been excessively drinking.

“In fact, lack of sleep affects the body the same way drinking alcohol does,” Mattox said. “Researchers found that going 17 hours without sleep had an impact on our alertness that was similar to the effects of a blood alcohol concentration of 0.05 percent, which is considered legally impaired.”

If you want to take steps to improve your sleep before you hit that wall (or if you’re already there and need to get back on track), both Mattox and Medalie had some tips to get started.

“It goes without saying that you want to check in with your doctor,” Mattox said of anyone struggling with insomnia or exhaustion.

But while you wait on that appointment, she suggested the following:

  • Eat and drink with your sleep in mind. “For instance, magnesium has been found to reduce the body’s stress response and improve your sleep quality,” she said. “Try adding in magnesium-rich dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, cashews, avocados, or dark chocolate to your diet.”
  • Take a break from alcohol. “Most people think that alcohol helps you sleep better. It may be a bit easier to relax and perhaps get you to sleep easily for the first part of the night,” Mattox said. “But it can disrupt the second half of your sleep, and you can find yourself up urinating the night away as well.”
  • Cut out caffeine. Especially after 2 p.m., as this can make it harder to fall asleep.
  • Try a weighted blanket. “They simulate deep-touch pressure therapy, a technique used in occupational therapy that is used to treat sensory disorders, anxiety, and ADHD with weighted clothes, without any side effects,” Mattox said.

For her part, Medalie said it’s important to optimize your sleep through habit changes.

“Most adults need 7 to 8 hours of sleep,” she explained, adding that some need as little as 6 or as much as 9.

“Try to experiment with various hours one week at a time to determine your sleep need,” she said.

Once you’ve determined your own sleep needs, she said you should prioritize getting that amount of sleep every night. Even though doing so might not come easy or naturally at first.

To do that, she suggested:

  • Setting boundaries on electronic usage. Turn off all devices 1 hour before bedtime.
  • Utilize a relaxing pre-sleep ritual (e.g., hot bath, soft music, and reading)
  • Set aside the hour before bedtime as “me time.” Minimize conversations with family or calls during that hour.
  • Find new coping strategies, hobbies, and support engagement. “Optimizing control over stress will support sleep optimization,” she explained.
  • Set a structured daytime schedule to support a consistent bedtime and wake time. Use phone reminders to encourage staying on track with your daytime schedule.

If these habit changes aren’t successful, she said you may want to consider cognitive behavioral treatment for insomnia (CBT-I).

“This is an evidence-based behavioral program, and is the first-line recommendation for those struggling with sleep,” she explained.

There may be medical interventions your doctor can prescribe as well, if all else fails. But both Medalie and Mattox agree pharmaceuticals should be the last line of defense.

For as hard as the last year has been — and as much of a strain it’s had on sleep — experts agree that getting adequate sleep is perhaps more important now than ever.

“When we are sleep deprived, we are more at risk to get sick,” Medalie explained. “Getting enough sleep promotes inflammatory homeostasis and health maintenance. If you are chronically sleep deprived, it weakens the body’s defense system and makes you more vulnerable to contract a virus.”

Optimizing sleep, she said, can reduce that risk of contracting viruses. And it can contribute to a healthier life overall.