We're All Losing Sleep Over COVID-19. These 3 Tips Can Help

Published: Monday, January 4, 2021 - 12:05pm
Updated: Monday, January 4, 2021 - 6:40pm
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LAUREN GILGER: For a lot of us, the pandemic has completely changed everyday life, and that includes one of the most fundamental things we all do, hopefully every day: Sleeping. Dr. Michael Grandner is an expert on sleep and how it impacts our health, both physically and mentally. And he has been studying the impact this pandemic is having on our collective sleep. I spoke with him more about what he's found in various studies and the effect it's having on all of us.

MICHAEL GRANDNER: Sleep is universal. It's a fundamental part of our biology, so it impacts everybody. And the other thing is, this pandemic is also universal. It's fundamentally altering how everyone in society is functioning. So when you take these two things that are impacting everyone together, you're going to see overlaps. And there's a few areas in particular where COVID seems to be impacting sleep for so many people. One is that people are having a harder time detaching at night, and this may be due to being glued to screens or just to their own worries and or not knowing what to do or how to detach or their schedules being disrupted during the day or not knowing when to put stuff down. For whatever reason, they're having a hard time detaching at night. That's something I'm seeing a lot. Another thing I'm seeing is that once people are in bed, they're spending more time in bed awake, whether it's that they're waking up more during the night or that they wake up during the night and they're having a harder time falling back to sleep than usual. Another thing that I'm seeing a lot is people reporting very vivid dreams, much more than you normally would, or at least they're noticing more. And then another thing that's even maybe more pervasive than any of the others is just the idea of a schedule disruption — where all of the instruments in the symphony of our lives are starting to play out of sync with each other, where sometimes people are losing the rhythm and sometimes people are having to alter their rhythm in different ways. And it can change everything from your fatigue and energy levels during the day and when you're awake and when you're asleep, but when you're eating and when you're sedentary, you're moving, all these sorts of things. And when the rhythms get altered, it impacts many aspects of your body, not just sleep. So I'm seeing all of these things.

GILGER: So first, before we get into the "why" behind some of this, let's talk about the implications of that, right. Because we know getting proper sleep, being well rested, has so much to do with not just how our bodies and our immune systems function, right? But like, with our mental health, what kind of concerns do you have as you see these trends emerge?

GRANDNER: Yeah. So stress and mental health and sleep are intricately connected. They always are. We do know that pretty much any mental health condition comes with sleep disturbance much of the time. One thing that I'm concerned about is that as the COVID pandemic increases the number of things we're worrying about and stressing about and it's causing more sort of mental health issues, how is that feeding back in sleep? Is it becoming a vicious cycle? Where it's disrupting our sleep, it's disrupting our mental health. And these two things then cycle to make each other worse where poor mental health worsens sleep or sleep worsens mental health. And there's actually a study that I collaborated on where we looked at COVID-related stress. And we found that one of the key links between COVID-related stress and important mental health outcomes, COVID-related worsening mental health and COVID-related worsening sleep seem to be going hand in hand.

GILGER: I want to ask you about sort of the outside effects on us, right. Like, you say it's, it's hard to turn off our brains now. Some people just might go to sleep or try to go to sleep and not be able to sleep for some time. And I wonder how much that has to do with not just the pandemic, but, you know, we've been watching the economy falter. We've been watching political unrest, racial unrest in the country. How much did these kind of outside and stressors that don't directly maybe impact us but are ever present affecting people, you think?

GRANDNER: Yeah, they're in our world, and people are taking them into bed with them. What we're seeing is that people are embodying the world around them in their sleep. When people are laying in bed without any distractions, these are things that our minds are focusing on. These are things we're worried about. And so, yeah, I think it's very plausible that these things are impacting people's sleep, sometimes directly, even if it's not directly impacting us where we're not up for election. But it's still our world that we're, that we're concerned about and that speaks to the ability to detach. And we have a society that that doesn't really value this idea of letting things go sometimes, where everything is important all the time. That's not really good for sleep.

GILGER: Yeah. OK, so let's end then, Michael, with the useful question here hopefully for folks. What can we all do to sleep better? Like, are there, are there tactics we can try that might help or is this something we can fix on our own?

GRANDNER: Yeah, the great thing about sleep is it's highly programmable. First of all though, if you have a sleep disorder, if you have sleep apnea or an insomnia disorder or some other sleep disorder and it's not getting treated, there are places you can go, there are specialists you can go. You should be able to see a sleep specialist because if you've got a sleep disorder, tips aren't going to fix it. But if you get that out of the way, "It's not a sleep disorder, I'm just struggling a little bit." So here's three take-home things for you. Number one, budget time to wind down. Think of it like you're driving a car and you're approaching a stop sign. You start tapping the brakes before you're in the intersection, not when you're already in front of the stop sign. And the faster you're going, the more lead time you need to give yourself. Second thing, and maybe even more important, is if you're in bed and you cannot sleep, get out of bed. In 20, 30 minutes, get up, try again. Maybe you need to be up for 30, 45, 60 minutes before you try again. Maybe it's a short amount of time, but reset. Spending excessive amounts of time in bed not leading to sleep can inadvertently program you for your mind to start working in bed because it starts learning that that's what it's for. And then finally, set an anchor for the morning. If your schedule is disrupted, wake up at the same time every morning, maybe slightly earlier than you really want to — get some bright lights and a bright daytime signal to your brain. Your rhythms will start working around it. You may notice your mood get better, your energy level increased and it sets you up for falling asleep at the time you want to at night because your hunger for sleep starts building when you wake up. It'll help you program in a healthy sleep rhythm too.

GILGER: That's really helpful advice. All right. A little bit for everybody. That is Dr. Michael Grandner, director of the Sleep and Health Research Program at the University of Arizona. Dr. Grandner, thank you so much for joining us to talk this through today.

GRANDNER: Thanks a lot.

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