The pandemic has resulted in a global state of anxiety about our safety, health, and work. Google searches for the term “insomnia” increased by 57% during the first five months of 2020 from that same period of the previous three years. The largest number of searches for the word “insomnia” occurred between midnight and 3:00 a.m. during normal bedtimes as people searched for solutions.
Insomnia is a sleep disorder in which you have trouble falling and/or staying asleep. The condition can be short-term (acute) or can last a long time (chronic). It may also come and go. Acute insomnia lasts from one night to a few weeks. Insomnia is chronic when it happens at least three nights a week for three months or more. Even in normal times, as many as 20% of Americans suffer from this mysterious sleep disorder that impacts every aspect of one’s physical and mental health.
I long for those nights (and mornings) when I fell asleep almost immediately and didn’t move for eight or more hours. My insomnia developed in my 40s, and my guess is that I got it from my mother who suffered from insomnia and took prescription sleeping pills every night. A study in Science Daily confirms that insomnia is hereditary, and researchers identified specific genes that may trigger the development of sleep disorders.
Over the years, I have experimented with over-the-counter, natural products, and prescription sleep medication, with none of these providing satisfactory results. I realized that a good night’s sleep is more than just medications and requires following all the standard advice such as avoiding late night snacks, computer time, and alcohol, as well as following an established routine.
Last year, my sleeping disorder deteriorated further as I woke each day around 6:00 a.m., which is brutal for us night owls. I tossed and turned for an hour thinking about work or my personal “to do” list and would drift off right before the alarm went off. And this was before the pandemic left all of us sleepless.
With COVID-19, I’ve been particularly sleep-challenged worrying about the pandemic and its victims, the economy, and the ability to have a “normal” life, including seeing friends and family. I wonder if those of us who live alone are even more sleep deprived? According to a UC Davis Health clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, “Insomnia was a problem before COVID-19. Now, from what we know anecdotally, the increase is enormous. It’s being called “coronasomnia” and is a problem everywhere, across all age groups.” A family member shared that she has recurring COVID nightmares, where she’s stuck in a crowd of people with no masks. When she told me that, I told her I would take the nightmares if I could get to sleep.
One silver lining of the pandemic is that it forced me to look for a more workable solution to my insomnia. The following are habits I have adopted that have had a positive impact. Hopefully they will be helpful to others as well.
- Start the day with a quick stretch/exercise session
- No food past 7:00 p.m. (but I haven’t given up my glass of wine with dinner!)
- Read a non-fiction book for an hour before retiring
- Go to bed earlier
- Based on ideal bedroom-setting recommendations, I installed blackout curtains, purchased a white noise machine, and keep the temperature between 65- 68 degrees.
Knowing there are different strokes for different folks, I polled my colleagues who also suffer from insomnia. The following are some solutions they found helpful:
- ASMR videos. ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) is a relaxing, often sedative sensation that begins on the scalp and moves down the body. Also known as "brain massage," it's triggered by placid sights and sounds such as whispers, accents, and crackles. It is relatively new (2010), and is gaining a worldwide following for relaxation and sleep.
- The Calm app available through Apple is the #1 app for Sleep, Meditation, and Relaxation, with over 100 million downloads.
- 3. rVNS (respiratory vagus nerve stimulation) breathing exercises, in particular the 4-7-8 technique. This a breathing pattern based on an ancient yogic technique and has been shown to promote sleep in a shorter period of time when practiced regularly.
- 4. Melatonin is a non-prescription supplement that fans claim is another natural way to help put your body into a cooperative state for sleep. Described as putting users into a “state of quiet wakefulness”, for some it aids their body’s natural melatonin production to help promote sleep during short term issues such as jetlag or changing bed times.
Additionally, one colleague commented that it’s important not to get too fixated on getting eight solid hours of sleep, citing the BBC.com article “The myth of the eight-hour sleep”. The article discusses a shift from two distinct “sleeps” during the night – which was considered the norm until the 1920’s – to one condensed sleeping time.
Finally, if I fail to get a good night’s sleep for consecutive nights, I force myself to sleep late on the weekends. For me, it makes a world of difference.