Maybe you’ve never really had issues with falling asleep or staying asleep but now all of a sudden you find yourself wide-awake as 3 a.m. comes and goes. Maybe you’ve always been a light sleeper but now find yourself sleeping long and hard, with trouble waking up. Or maybe you’re experiencing some of the wackiest, most vivid dreams you’ve ever had. All of the above, plus much more, is becoming more common in the era of COVID-19.
When routines are uprooted, there’s no more morning commute, and opting to watch ‘just one more episode’ has become easier than ever before, it’s understandable that sleep can get pushed to the back burner. Compounding all of that with the added stress and anxiety many are experiencing, a good night’s rest may seem like something that got left behind in our world pre-quarantine. But as we continue to adjust to staying at home more often than not and trying to remain healthy in a time of COVID-19, focusing on sleeping well offers tremendous benefits.
According to the Sleep Foundation, sleep is critical to physical health and effective functioning of the immune system. It’s also a key component of emotional wellness and mental health, helping to beat back stress, depression, and anxiety.
You may have had a bout of insomnia before, usually when things are a bit stressful. But many may not have experienced trouble getting to sleep for this long of a time period. The pandemic can exacerbate insomnia in people who already suffer from it, or trigger new insomnia in others brought on by an abrupt change in our daily activities, social isolation and, anxiety and stress.
Insomnia can also be related to a consistently low mood or depression. With more people experiencing an increase in downtime and a general lack of energy or motivation, many may turn to increased daytime napping, which can make it harder to fall asleep at night.
If you can fall asleep without too much trouble at bedtime, but find yourself waking up multiple times during the night, this is known as sleep fragmentation, which is often caused by major stressors.
“Our brain processes information during sleep,” says Brandon Peters-Mathews, a sleep medicine doctor and author of Sleep Through Insomnia. “Many of our routines have been severely disrupted by COVID-19. As we spend more time at home, we may have increased familial or relationship stress. Our normal outlets to reduce stress — exercise, spending time with friends, going out to eat, seeing a movie, or being in nature — may be absent. As the brain processes this additional stress, we may have more nighttime awakenings.”
Vivid, disturbing dreams (what most people call nightmares) are closely linked to the fragmented sleep described above. Dreaming is a characterization of rapid eye movement or REM sleep in combination with a faster pulse rate and breathing. REM sleep happens at various intervals during the night.
“Waking from REM sleep will lead to the recall of these disturbing dreams,” Peters-Mathews says. “But stress may also cause increased dream recall.”
So if you feel like you’ve been having more odd dreams lately, it may actually be that you’re just remembering more of them because you’re waking up more frequently throughout the night.
However, there’s still a connection between anxiety and disturbing dreams. You know, those dreams you get when you’ve got a big project presentation coming up that you’re worried about, or when you’re worried about a familial or financial problem. Unfortunately, our fears and anxieties may be playing out more in our dreams as our brain tries to process our emotions.
If it makes you feel any better, some studies suggest that anxious dreams aren’t all bad. A 2010 study published in Current Biology found that people who dreamed about solving a maze they’d been working on performed 10 times better than those who didn’t dream about it. And a 2014 study published in Conscious Cognition, found that students studying for an exam who had anxiety dreams the night before the test performed significantly better on it. Likewise, a stressful dream you had before a big event may have opened your eyes to a new way of thinking or a new element you could implement that you hadn’t thought of before, better preparing you.
Remedy for a Good Night’s Sleep
Although these are very different times we’re living in right now, the good news is that the remedy for a good night’s sleep remains the same — pandemic or not. Brian Meusborn, PA-C, a physician assistant on the medical staff at Texas Health Family Care in Flower Mound, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice, offers these tips:
- Mealtime: Avoid eating right before bed. When you go to bed soon after you’ve eaten, your body will spend energy digesting your meal, disrupting sleep and keeping you from getting a good night’s rest.
- Eat healthy meals: Eat healthy foods to promote proper digestion. If you’re eating unhealthy foods and not watching what you eat, your diet will inhibit gut function. You won’t feel well, and the resulting bloating, gas and nausea will keep you from sleeping well.
- Avoid screen time: Stay off all electronic devices — that also means TVs — for a minimum of 30 minutes before bedtime. Keep screens away from the bed. Looking at devices in bed trains our brain to expect a screen and keeps us from falling asleep.
- Get moving: Exercise plays a huge role in promoting good sleep at night by releasing sleep-inducing hormones, inducing fatigue and contributing to weight loss and other health benefits. But people who have trouble falling asleep should avoid working out 2-3 hours before bedtime because it can increase heart rate, blood pressure and hormones that may ‘wire’ them for a couple of hours after exercise. Need some inspiration? Try one of our at-home workouts.
- Curb your alcohol, caffeine and tobacco use: Avoid alcohol and caffeine within three hours before bedtime. Drinking too closely to bedtime disrupts quality sleep, as does caffeine. Quitting smoking or other tobacco use is a must for good sleep. Tobacco is a stimulant and plays havoc with rest.
- Read labels: It’s always smart to read drug labels, and that applies to both prescribed and over-the-counter medicine. Certain medications can affect sleep, so arm yourself with that knowledge when taking meds.
- Strive for good health: Live a healthy lifestyle accented by a diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean meats. Drink plenty of water and get some exercise each day. If you don’t currently exercise, start slowly with a short walk and build up the length over time.
The take-home message: The coronavirus pandemic is creating a perfect storm for sleep problems. But help is available if you need it. Talk to someone — a friend, family member, colleague — about your sleep troubles. Just getting something off your mind and talking through it with someone can help ease stress and anxiety. If you still find yourself having trouble sleeping, talk to your doctor — many physicians and therapists are available via Telehealth, either virtually or over the phone.