More People Are Having Trouble Sleeping. Arizona Researchers Are Trying To Understand The Role Of Insomnia During The Pandemic

By Madison Cerro, Cronkite News
Published: Friday, January 1, 2021 - 10:51am
Updated: Friday, January 1, 2021 - 11:03am
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Paulina Ochoa never had a problem sleeping — until the COVID-19 pandemic started.

“Since the start of the pandemic … I don't know if you're familiar with sleep paralysis, but I had that happen to me once and, it was just pretty scary, just because that's not something that that I had experienced before,” said Ochoa.

But, a lot has happened since January. Ochoa’s aunt passed away, her car was stolen and she lost two jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I'm kind of thinking like leaning a little bit more towards fear,” said Ochoa. “It's anxiety, you know, just like manifesting itself at night”

Ochoa says she started to hear voices and to see shadows as her insomnia persisted. Then there were the nightmares and sleep paralysis:

“I was just so scared, you know,” she said “I had two occasions where like the voices things started happening, that I just didn't even want to close my eyes”

The sustainability student at Arizona State University says it got so bad, there were times where she wasn’t going to bed until 7 a.m. And she’s not alone.

“We've seen a lot of problems lately, especially with people having trouble disconnecting at night, where they just with everything going on during the day, they have a real hard time disconnecting,” said Michael Grandner, who runs the Sleep and Health Research program at the University of Arizona Department of Psychiatry. He also sees patients at the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Clinic at Banner Health. “There's probably more than 15 different researchers doing sleep research here.”

And that research consists of a study that monitors the role of insomnia during the pandemic.

More than 50% of the more than 1,000 participants say they’re experiencing insomnia during the pandemic. And Grander says a good night's sleep is important

“If you want to have a robust immune system, it's important to sleep there's data that shows that people who aren't getting enough sleep, they're more likely to get sick, especially for viral infections.”

And Ochoa did get sick. She tested positive for COVID-19 in June.

“So I was still having trouble sleeping and now I had the added factor of like, can't breathe right. So you know, just kind of like the symptoms of like COVID and stuff like that,” said Ochoa.

Lauri Leadley is the president of Valley Sleep Center in Arizona. She says insomnia is directly related to stress.

“Insomnia is literally the inability to escape your thoughts. And during stressful times, our bodies create cortisol which cortisol is our ‘awake’ hormone,” said Leadley.

For Ochoa, she’s tried everything to sleep — short of taking medication.

“The way that I tried to, like cope with it was kind of like, tire myself out,” said Ochoa. “Like, go to sleep like really, really late. That way I would just knock out

Even when Ochoa would fall asleep, she says nightmares would wake her up almost every time.

Denise Rodriguez is a clinical psychologist who specializes in behavioral sleep medicine to treat insomnia at Banner Health. She says she has seen patients who have nightmares and insomnia.

“Typically, for a lot of folks who do struggle with nightmare disorders, it's not just that they're having a nightmare, but that the nightmare prevents them from going back to sleep,” said Rodriguez.

The pandemic has changed many daily routines, and for some people it has meant less activity throughout the day.

Rodriguez says this lack of activity can cause an increase in dreaming.

“Some of the theories behind why we're dreaming more is that we're under stimulated during our day. And so our brain is trying to give us that extra stimulation at night,” said Rodriguez.

Grandner says our mental health can also be affected by our sleep.

“Sleep difficulties are probably the most reliable predictor of poor mental health. And especially in terms of depression and anxiety,” said Grandner.

Ochoa says she was already experiencing stress and anxiety in daily life, and her insomnia only made it worse.

“I was just like, ‘This is too crazy.’ I was like, ‘I can't, you know,” said Ochoa. “I want to go to sleep, and I can't live like this.”

So, Ochoa turned to two missionaries for help. They gave her a blessing. During this blessing, the missionaries put oil on her forehead, and placed their hands on her head. Then they said a prayer.

“All of a sudden, I could sleep,” said Ochoa. “And I think maybe it's just maybe it was just like a mental thing. You know, maybe it was just my fears and anxiety … representing themselves, like, you know, at nighttime.

While this worked for Ochoa, Grandner has other suggestions.

He says it is a good idea to be exposed to sunlight shortly after waking up and, before going to sleep.

“Check your schedule, process all the stuff that you need to process so that by the time you get into bed, you've already done all that work,” said Grandner.

Grandner also suggests less screen time and exercising during the day to help ensure a good night’s rest.

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