As our car pulled out of Cal Expo’s cavernous livestock shed, Sacramento’s mass vaccination site, I felt the effects of my second Moderna jab immediately. Sure, I didn’t feel my cells manufacturing spike proteins, but there was something else: giddy relief, my body softening like a tightly clenched fist I’d finally released. That night, I slept like a baby.
For some months after the vaccines rolled out, the end of the pandemic seemed tantalizingly close. But then, like a horror movie’s unwelcome third act, concerns began popping back up: breakthrough infections, the Delta variant, renewed mask mandates. My daughter’s daycare was closing regularly because of COVID-19 scares. Fists began to clench again.
By the end of the summer, I found myself back where I’d been the year before: stressed and sleep-deprived. I kept busy during the day, but when I climbed into bed, my anxieties took that as their signal to re-emerge. I wasn’t alone. According to research, around 4 in 10 people have reported experiencing sleep disruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic, a phenomenon dubbed by experts as “coronasomnia.”
As more and more research has showed the overwhelming impact of the pandemic on people’s sleep, the term has become widely accepted within the medical community. Fortunately, there are some key ways to stop coronasomnia and get the sleep you need.
A familiar condition with new twists
The pandemic disrupted nearly every aspect of our lives. Sleep is no exception. COVID-19 has both exacerbated insomnia for those already suffering and triggered it for the first time in others. Overall, experts estimate there’s been a 37 percent increase in clinical insomnia since the pandemic began, often accompanied by anxiety and depression.
What makes coronasomnia different from regular insomnia is that it’s been caused by a specific external event: the pandemic. Since we’re still lingering in a public health emergency, experts say it’s vital to address sleep issues head-on so they don’t persist and cause more health issues down the road.
The ubiquity of coronasomnia can be attributed to a confluence of these pandemic-related factors.
- Stress and anxiety. We’ve had no shortage of things to be distressed about during the past 18-plus months, so it’s no surprise that there’s been a huge increase in stress levels since the pandemic began. Stress increases cortisol, a hormone that puts your body into fight-or-flight mode and suppresses the production of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin. “When you’re stressed, your body is looking for danger and ready to take action,” says Katherine Hall, a Toronto sleep psychologist who specializes in treating insomnia. “Your sharpened senses and high-alert state make you more inclined to wake up in response to low-level noise or slight movements that you’d normally sleep through.”
- Disrupted (or nonexistent) schedules. Working from home eliminated the anchors of our daily routines, and some people responded to this lack of structure by sleeping, eating and working at irregular hours. “When there’s no set schedule, some people shift to a ‘whenever’ clock, and this can dysregulate the system and cause jet lag–like symptoms,” says Dr. Allison Siebern, a sleep specialist in Raleigh, North Carolina. Indeed, research has linked COVID-19 lockdowns to disrupted schedules and reduced nighttime sleep.
- Being stuck at home. The combination of remote work and various lockdowns has meant that many people have been stuck at home. This can be bad for sleep in several ways. For one, you’re likely getting less exposure to natural light, which is important for regulating your sleep-wake cycle. What’s more, if you live in a smaller space, your “office” may be just a few feet from your bed, blurring the line between work and sleep and making it difficult to fully transition from the former to the latter. Additionally, staying at home has led many people to adopt more sedentary lifestyles, and physical activity improves sleep.
- Increased media consumption. The news of the past 18 months has been horrible, yet impossible to look away from. Since the pandemic began, people have been spending more time on both social and traditional media reading COVID-19 stories, while also consuming more media in general (Nielson reported a 60 percent increase in the amount of video content watched globally). While this stressful media content can increase anxiety, blue light from our screens can also have an impact on your body’s ability to fall asleep.
Putting coronasomnia to bed
Because coronasomnia is, at its core, an inability to sleep, all the customary sleep hygiene tips apply: have a bedtime routine; limit stimulants, alcohol, screen time and heavy meals late in the day; keep your bedroom dark and cool; and try CBT-i, cognitive behavioral therapy designed specifically for insomnia, for severe cases. But coronasomnia is also a unique form of insomnia, for which we can implement a number of more targeted strategies. Here’s what should help:
- Address emotional distress before bedtime. The starting pistol that sent anxious thoughts racing through my head at nighttime? That only went off because I spent all day running away from those thoughts. “If an active mind is keeping you awake, try setting aside some time earlier in the day to address these concerns to reduce worry during the nighttime sleep window,” advises Sieburn.
- Put a daily routine in place. Yes, this involves putting on pants and leaving the house. In order to restore your circadian rhythm, it’s important to have regular markers that signal to your body what time it is. This includes consistent bedtimes and wake times (“Yes, even weekends!” says Hall), a predictable meal schedule, regular exercise and time outside in the natural light. For me, I’ve added a short walk after I drop off my daughter at daycare, which serves as my “commute,” even though I end up back at home.
- Keep your sleep space and work space separate. If you’re working from your home, and it’s large enough for a dedicated office, make sure you’re working there and not in your bedroom. If you’re in tighter quarters, do some creative rearranging to set up a home office that’s out of sight from your bed: a section of your kitchen table, a comfy chair by the window, a shady spot on the back porch.
- When in doubt, check in with an expert. If you’re consistently having trouble sleeping, and can’t find any relief, you might want to talk to your primary care doctor. They can refer you to a sleep specialist, psychologist, or another expert fit for addressing the issue. If none of the above strategies is working, you might be prescribed a medication typically used for treating standard insomnia. (Sleep-specific prescriptions include medications like Ambien.)
Lately, I’ve been getting quality sleep again. As it became clear that I’d likely be experiencing COVID-19-related anxiety indefinitely, I realized that my insomnia wasn’t going away anytime soon without intervention.
I checked in with a nurse practitioner, who prescribed me sleep medication for emergencies. And I started to implement some of the above strategies in my own life. These helped more than I expected.
I still have the occasional end-of-day anxiety avalanche, but for the most part, I’m diligent with my sleep-protecting practices. We may still be living in the “new normal” of COVID-19, but insomnia should never be a baseline that anyone has to accept.