I went looking for helpful, reliable advice to share, but what I found didn’t address what we’re all going through with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Usual Solutions for Sleep Loss
It’s easy to find reputable articles online that deal with occasional and intermittent sleep issues, travel time zone changes, or the off-kilter adjustment period after daylight savings. Here’s a quick set of resources with the “usual” sorts of advice. I’ve left the URLs exposed so you can see where the link will take you. All links will open in a new browser tab.
- State of your mind – this site wants to sell you a mattress, but the article is very well constructed around mental readiness for sleep. During a pandemic some of the advice may seem out of reach. https://restonic.com/blog/cant-sleep-8-proven-mind-tricks-soothe-anxious-mind.
- Coping with interrupted sleep – these tips apply if you’ve had one bad night, or a couple, but don’t address weeks-long sleep interruption. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/improving-sleep-quality-what-interrupted-sleep.
- Yoga for better sleep. Simple, quick and quiet poses that relax, plus steady breathing. https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/video/yoga-moves-better-sleep. You’ll have to watch a short ad first.
- Melatonin – One of the most used sleep aids, melatonin is a hormone the regulates sleep. The over-the-counter supplement doesn’t work for everybody (works for me but not my wife), and it won’t work if it’s not used correctly. https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/melatonin-dos-donts#1.
- Checklist assessment tool for better sleep – answer a few questions, get recommendations. https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/sleep-disorders-assessment/default.htm. No registration required.
In normal circumstances, the scope of this advice would be enough for most people missing out on good sleep now and again. But it’s not normal times, and for some of us, the missing sleep is every night and there’s no end in sight.
This Crisis Isn’t the “Usual” Kind of Sleep Issue
What I had real trouble finding was useful, reputable sources for sleep issues caused by prolonged crisis-driven stress, anxiety, and depression. A dark cool room, regular schedule, meditation, avoiding caffeine and alcohol – those will likely all help to some degree. However, finding the space to meditate in a full house, or always going to bed at the same time every night is not doable for a lot of people right now.
Nor, frankly, are those of us who consume caffeine and alcohol going to spare a moment’s thought to giving them up right now, thank you.
Given that, I wanted to know what’s still useful to try, even if it’s not “ideal.” Unfortunately, once I got past the usual advice, the next level of research was sleep disorders and medical diagnoses. Medical research is focused on long-term solutions like behavioral therapy, or addressing and medicating diagnosed conditions – for example, overactive thyroid or clinical anxiety.
Why Are So Many of Us Suddenly Struggling to Sleep?
It seems like an easy answer: anxiety, worry, uncertainty, chaos, right? There’s plenty of good advice out there about dealing with anxiety and worry, like this one from the UK’s NHS or this one from the US’s Mayo Clinic. Reducing stress is often top of the list for the usual advice on dealing with sleep loss. Unfortunately, some stress reducers are the very things we can’t do right now, like visiting friends and family.
Vivid Nightmares Anyone?
Check out this extensive article at Today from a few days ago about the surge in reports of vivid nightmares and the connection between stress and dreaming due to social distancing and pandemic realities. The advice to have something near your bed that is comforting and normal is excellent. The rest is the “usual” advice which may be helpful, but I don’t think gets at other parts of the problem. But I was really gratified to see that sleep issues are on journalists’ radars.
The Spoon Metaphor
One thing I’ve found helpful is the spoon metaphor. Most of us are used to a full complement of spoons we can spend all day, with some left for decent sleep and brain rest at night. At least we used to be.
To borrow the metaphor, many of us who have never had to count our emotional and mental resilience spoons before are running out of them by bedtime.
Whatever resilience we’d normally have for a bout of anxiety, from time to time, is drained just getting through the day.
The Hamster Wheel Wind Up
This is my personal pattern: I’m glued to the news or social media and looking for signs of hope or a diverting missive. Refresh screen. I think if I find it, then maybe I’ll sleep better. Refresh screen. It’s really difficult to get off that hamster-refresh-screen-wheel, and even when I do, the anxiety behind the behavior follows me to bed. Does any of that sound familiar?
The usual better sleep advice doesn’t address this kind of insidious, needle-focused anxiety that can hit like a lightning strike in an already taxed mental state. I think this is especially hard for those of us who usually weather stressful ups and downs without a lot of fuss. Our usual “tricks” and fortitude-stiff-upper-lip aren’t working, especially when we’re in the vulnerable sleep cycle.
A Thousand Paper Cuts of Loss
When my searching and reading about sleep issues stumbled across grief – more than once – I had an epiphany. It’s accurate to say we’re all stressed and feeling worry and anxiety, and those are all known to cause sleep issues.
Grief also causes sleep issues. And I think many of us are grieving. Advice that’s readily available for laypeople is about “profound grief” – dealing with death close to you and/or severe trauma.
Pausing here to say, of course, some of us are in fact dealing with the profound grief following the unimaginable death of loved ones – if that’s you, I am so sorry. Please do seek out therapeutic help as soon as you can.
But what about grief that’s not what’s defined as “profound”? Instead, it’s multiple and constant losses over months? Sudden loss of way of life, loss of contact, loss of normalcy, loss of beloved celebrities, just to name a few.
Even if not touched directly by death, we all know or are anticipating knowing someone who is or will be. We’re all worrying about our family, and our friends, and their families. We’re all feeling the cumulative impact of many friends – around the world – also suffering these same losses – all at the same time.
Maybe it’s not “profound” per se, but the thousand paper cuts of loss we’re collectively and separately suffering is mounting. Every day adds a little more, without respite.
So while studies that deal with profound grief and its effect on sleep aren’t quite right for this situation, they point out there’s no quick and easy cure. A dark, cool room or learning to meditate might help, but it ain’t gonna fix it.
Is “Complicated Grief” Why We Can’t Sleep?
Learning about the clinical definition of “complicated grief” was illuminating for me. Generally, it’s grief that persists longer than 6 months at a level that highly affects daily life. When I consider that I’ve been in a kind of grief since the 2016 election and every month since has brought attacks on my belief in human decency and fairness, it far exceeds 6 months, even if the impact on my daily life isn’t acute.
The pandemic piled on top, however, is in fact impairing my mental resilience, my ability to concentrate, and my appetite. Not as much, of course, as for the patient described in this poignant article at Psychology Today, but seeing parallels was genuinely helpful to me. Maybe for you too.
I think the resources below might be helpful as a way to think through and mitigate the impact of grief on our anxiety and stress levels, and therefore our sleep.
- Your personal go to sources may already have useful advice for you – if you have a preferred mindfulness, religious, or motivational source, search it for help with grief. While much is likely to be about profound grief, considering some of its hallmarks (denial, anger, depression) might ease some of the anxiety. Here, for example, is a Psychology Today article about mindfulness and grief. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/some-assembly-required/201610/mindfulness-based-approach-healing-loss.
- General info on grief and sleep – This site wants to send you to other sites to buy things, but the article is a general round up of the many realities of grief and how it affects our bodies, sleep, minds, and emotional well-being. It is very light on recommendations beyond “the usual” advice, but at the close of the article they have a good list of further resources if you think you need more help. https://www.sleepadvisor.org/grief-and-sleep/.
- NIH scholarly article – they recognize up front that there are scant resources about grief and sleep. They focus on loss of spouse and clinically defined “complicated grief.” It’s of limited use for my purpose here, but I include it for the many links to studies about the subject for anyone looking for a deep dive. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2826218/.
That’s All Fine and Good, But We Still Can’t Sleep
Thinking about sleep issues as a possible symptom of grieving is helpful for one part of the problem. At least we’re not blaming ourselves for lacking the mental fortitude to cope perfectly with what is a truly not perfect situation. Things are messed up right now, so lots of things we normally control beautifully are going to be less than beautiful.
Dealing with grief isn’t quick. That means that even as we work on our grief and anxiety, we’re still not getting enough sleep.
We still need 8 hours for our health, for our hearts and blood sugar, and strong mental resources, according to a gazillion studies. So if we’re not getting all 8 hours at night, the obvious answer seems to be get some – if possible – during the day.
There’s a word for that: NAP.
The Great Napping Debate
So here’s the real controversy. If I ask the Google, I see front-and-center the usual advice to avoid napping or keep them short or I won’t sleep at bedtime. How does that fit with the fact that no matter how tired we are, right now it takes two or three times longer to fall asleep, or that we wake up after a few hours, and this has been going on not for a day here and there, but for a couple of weeks?
Napping Advice Resources
So here are resources about napping, and how it could be useful or detrimental for our current crisis.
- 90 minutes counts as sleep – Great write up of how naps of different lengths provide different benefits. For most people, 90 minutes is a full sleep cycle, and could replace one cycle you lost the night before. https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/features/got-60-minutes-for-a-nap-how-about-6#1.
- Cat, Power, and Caffeine Naps – Naps between 10 and 30 minutes definitely deliver helpful, healthy mental and physical benefits. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/napping-tips-expert-strat_n_3320571. (They’re just not “sleep.”)
- More expert and researcher advice – If you’re interested in both sides of the debate you’ll find it here in quick, readable chunks. https://qz.com/quartzy/1589457/is-napping-good-for-you-only-if-you-do-it-the-right-way/. P.S. There’s no “right way” right now.
Isn’t This Like What New Parents Go Through?
Yes, it certainly is. A sudden and unrelenting change to sleep patterns happens to new parents, albeit for a foreseeable life event versus an unexpected pandemic. The problem with the advice for new parents is that it’s simply the “usual” advice. Establish a sleep schedule. Make your bedroom sleep ready, etc.
Plus, even though sleep deprivation for parents lasts for as much as six years, it’s still seen by medical doctors and sleep therapists as temporary, but not a crisis. They’re sympathetic, but I got the tone from several articles of “you’re young, everybody goes through it, it’ll get better, do the best you can.”
My Takeaways about the New “Normal”Quite simply, it seems more important to me to get sleep any way possible, just like new parents do. Don’t worry about ideal practices or expect much from quick fixes. Do what works for right now to get as close to 8 hours as we can.
Here are my thoughts about possible tactics for right now.
- Sleep in – If your temporary new normal is waking up for two hours at night, try resetting your alarm to wake up later. Or turn the alarm off completely and stay asleep for as long as you can. Not everyone can do this, I know.
- Take that nap – If you’re routinely eking out a mere 5 hours, try scheduling a 90-minute nap, when you can, to give yourself that extra sleep cycle.
- Nap/dozing time for all – Work out a nap swap schedule with your housemates as a necessary, temporary new normal for everyone. If you don’t sleep don’t be frustrated and don’t reach for your phone to be entertained. Instead, think of it as important mental regeneration time. Dozing or mental stillness, done in a darkened room, may reduce anxiety hormones so that when bedtime rolls around you’ve got some spoons left when anxiety wants to party.
- Bedtime rituals – Of all the “usual” advice this may be the most powerful. No matter when you go to bed, follow the same ritual. (Maybe including 2 minutes of yoga from that video I linked to above.)
- Turn off the news and screens – Get off the hamster wheel of news and social media earlier in the evening. Turn off the device screens to initiate your bedtime ritual. If you read in bed on a device before sleep, dim your device as low as possible, or consider dark mode (dark background with white lettering). Your device’s built-in “night mode” that switches from blue light to yellow light might not help at all.
- Put something comforting where you’ll see it if you’re startled awake – stealing that advice from the article above. Pics of family, a favorite tchotchke, Wonder Woman action figure…
It’s Okay to Be Weirded Out
Just a general missive here – let yourself off the freaking hook for somehow coping with everything perfectly. You do not have to use this extraordinary time in the best possible most perfectest way.
These times are not normal, and acting like they are won’t make them normal.
P.S. Stay the eff home, okay?
Further Reading – Clinical Anxiety and Insomnia Resources
These articles are for people with diagnosed conditions. While that might not be true of you, you may find useful takeaways.
- Causes of clinical insomnia and possible treatments – skip the drug treatments and have a look at the overview of contributing factors. If you can tackle one of them temporarily, it could help. – https://www.healthline.com/health/insomnia-causes.
- Cannabis and Sleep – It’s no surprise that there’s not much research about it yet. This article covers different strains and how they might affect sleep and REM cycles, and whether cannabis might be useful for different issues. https://www.healthline.com/health/medical-marijuana/cannabis-for-sleeping.
- Menopause and Insomnia – Can’t cure menopause, can’t take away the stress of a pandemic, but there’s a good list of easy changes to sleep environment that might help right away and on a long-term basis if “menopausal” describes you as it does me. https://www.healthline.com/health/menopause/menopause-and-insomnia#treatment.