Can’t sleep these days? It’s not just you. “We know that people are sleeping differently now than they did in the pre-pandemic era,” Jennifer Martin, PhD, author of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine clinical practice guidelines for the treatment of insomnia and a professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, told TODAY. She said studies have found that during the pandemic, people are spending more time in bed, but the quality of their sleep is worse.
What is insomnia?
According to the National Institutes of Health, when you have insomnia, you may have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or getting good sleep. Short-term insomnia can be caused by stress or changes in routine and can last for a few days or weeks. Chronic insomnia happens over a longer period of time — three or more nights per week and lasts more than three months — and can't be explained by a medical condition.
“It’s normal that we struggle with sleep when we’re under stress. We’re wired to remain awake in the face of danger,” she said. But just because it’s normal, doesn’t mean you have to live with it.
By now you’ve probably tried the standard advice for sleeping better:
- Keep your room cool, dark and quiet
- Minimize naps
- Exercise during the day
- Get some morning sunlight
4 ways insomnia sabotages a good night's sleep
These days, though, those strategies might not be enough. Here’s how insomnia sabotages your sleep, and what you can do about it.
1. Your schedule is chaotic.
The lack of a routine is a big driver behind pandemic sleep struggles. If you don’t have to be at work at a certain time and there’s not a bus rolling through your neighborhood to pick up your kids, your morning routine can get out of whack. And your morning routine is what drives your bedtime routine.
“Your brain doesn’t know when you want to be asleep and when you want to be awake because you’re not keeping a regular schedule,” Sanjay Patel, MD, medical director of the comprehensive sleep disorders program at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, told TODAY.
How to beat it: Replicate your old routine or build a new one. Martin struggled with maintaining her routine when she wasn’t going into work every day, so she started to get up, get dressed, walk her dog, and have her coffee to start her day. You don’t have to wake up early if you don’t need to, but you want to wake up at the same time every day and go to bed at the same time every day.
2. You're obsessing over the world’s problems.
“A lot of things going on don’t really put our mind at ease, whether that’s the pandemic, social unrest or political issues,” Martin said. “There’s a natural tendency at the end of the day to go over these issues one more time then put your head on your pillow.”
How to beat it: Spend the last 30 to 60 minutes of your day reading something fun, light or interesting — that break can help separate your mind from the things that are keeping it active. And stay off your phone. “If you feel you must look at your phone, scroll through your photos of your last vacation,” Martin said.
3. You're self-medicating to get to sleep.
These days, people are turning to over-the-counter sleep aids and alcohol to help them sleep. “Over-the-counter sleep aids are OK to use once in a while, Patel said. But if you’re using them frequently, they’re masking an underlying problem. And alcohol might help you fall asleep, but it wears off in a few hours, so you’ll wake up during the night. It can also worsen sleep problems like sleep apnea.
How to beat it: Try cognitive behavioral therapy. A therapist can help you change your thinking about sleep, develop relaxation techniques, reduce sleep stressors and minimize the amount of time you lie in bed awake.
4. You're working all the time.
Standard sleep advice says to only use your bedroom for sleep and intimacy. But your bedroom might be the only quiet space to work from home. And that proximity between your work space and your sleep space can keep deadlines and work questions spinning through your head at night.
How to beat it: If you must work from your bedroom, sit at a desk or chair rather than working from your bed. “That will help create that psychological separation that when you're lying in bed it’s time for your brain to turn off,” Patel said.
When should you seek expert help for insomnia?
If lack of sleep is making it hard for you to function, talk to your primary care doctor. Your doctor can either treat you or refer you to a sleep specialist. Even if you’re functioning OK, if you’re having trouble sleeping at least three times a week for three months it’s worth getting professional help, according to Martin.
And if you’re not having trouble falling asleep but you’re waking up in the night and struggling to return to sleep, talk to your doctor. “That could be a sign of an underlying sleep disorder,” Patel said.
For help treating insomnia, you can also try these resources: