How to Beat Insomnia
Text by Anahad O’Connor
Is your sleep not what it used to be? Does your mind race when your head hits the pillow? Do you wake up at 3 a.m. and struggle to fall back asleep? Are you feeling drowsy and sleep-deprived no matter how many hours you spend in bed?
For many people, sleeping poorly was the norm before the pandemic. Then the stress, anxiety and disruptions made our nightly slumber worse, giving rise to terms like “coronasomnia” to describe the surge in sleep disturbances last year. But recently, sleep experts noticed something that astonished them: More than a year into the pandemic, our collective sleep only continued to deteriorate.
In a survey of thousands of adults last summer, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine found that 20 percent of Americans said they had trouble sleeping because of the pandemic. But when the academy repeated its survey 10 months later, in March, those numbers rose dramatically. Roughly 60 percent of people said they struggled with pandemic-related insomnia, and nearly half reported that the quality of their sleep had diminished — even though infection rates have fallen and the country is opening back up.
“A lot of people thought that our sleep should be getting better because we can see the light at the end of the tunnel — but it’s worse now than it was last year,” said Dr. Fariha Abbasi-Feinberg, a sleep medicine specialist and spokeswoman for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “People are still really struggling.”
Chronically bad sleep is more than just a nuisance. It weakens the immune system, reduces memory and attention span, and increases the likelihood of chronic conditions like depression, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. The shorter your sleep, studies suggest, the shorter your life span. And for people over 50, sleeping less than six hours a night may even heighten the risk of dementia.
Studies show that in the pandemic, people tended to keep irregular sleep schedules, going to bed far later and sleeping in longer than usual, which can disrupt our circadian rhythms. We slashed our physical activity levels and spent more time indoors; gained weight and drank more alcohol; and erased the lines that separate work and school from our homes and our bedrooms — all of which are damaging to sleep.
HOW TO BEAT INSOMNIA
It’s normal to have trouble sleeping during big changes in your life. But when the sleep disruptions last longer than three months it can qualify as chronic insomnia, which can have long-term health consequences. One of the most effective treatments is cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. This approach helps you address the underlying thoughts, feelings and behaviors that are ruining your sleep. Here are some CBT-inspired ways to combat insomnia.
Follow the 25-Minute Rule
If you get into bed and can’t fall asleep after 25 minutes, or you wake up at night and can’t get back to sleep after 25 minutes, then don’t stay in bed. Get up and do a quiet activity that calms your mind and makes you drowsy. “Just get up, don’t fret,” said Dr. Matthew Walker, , a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of the best-selling book Why We Sleep. “If you stay in bed awake for long periods of time, your brain thinks, ‘Every time I get into bed, this is the place where I should be awake.’ And you need to break that association.”
Do any activity that relaxes you. Get up and stretch. Sit on your couch and meditate or read a magazine. Read a book in dim light. Do deep breathing exercises. Listen to a soothing podcast. You could sit in a chair and draw or knit if you like. Then, when you start to feel drowsy again, get back into bed and try to go to sleep. Just don’t get into bed unless you are tired. “You would never sit at the dinner table waiting to get hungry,” Dr. Walker said. “So why would you lie in bed waiting to get sleepy?”
Toss Your Worries
Sit down with a blank piece of paper one to two hours before bed each night. Then write down all of your thoughts, especially anything that is bothering you. It could be what you’re going to do at work tomorrow, the phone calls you have to make, or the bills you have to pay. “If most of what you’ve written down is stuff that you’re worried about, then crumple up the paper and throw it in the trash — that’s called discharging your thoughts,” said Dr. Ilene M. Rosen, a sleep medicine doctor and associate professor of medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. The act of dumping your thoughts on a piece of paper and throwing it away is a symbolic gesture that empowers you and calms your mind, said Dr. Rosen. “You had those thoughts and now they’re gone,” she said.
Screens in the Bedroom, Rules of Engagement
One reason sleep has suffered this past year is that people are sacrificing their slumber to catch up on all the fun things that they missed out on during the day, like scrolling through Instagram and watching YouTube videos. This phenomenon, known as revenge bedtime procrastination, is made worse by our attachment to our phones and screens, which often follow us into our beds. (How many times have you been glued to your phone long past your bedtime?)
Bright screens emit blue light that tells your brain it’s time to be awake. So follow evening guideline: If you are going to use your phone or device after your bedtime, then use it only while standing. When you feel like sitting or lying down, you have to put the device away. “You’ll find after about 10 minutes of standing up at your normal bedtime that you’re going to say, ‘I need to lie down,’ — and that’s your body telling you that you need to put the phone away and get to sleep,” said Dr. Walker.