Life in the Covid-19 pandemic has taken on some unpleasant and unexpected contours. Time has lost all meaning. Dreams have become assailingly vivid. That is, if you’re able to sleep at all, which many people cannot. At least, not as well as they did before it felt like everything was unraveling, all of the time, with no end in sight.
“I am seeing a significant spike in insomnia at this time during the pandemic,” says Lisa Medalie, a behavioral sleep medicine specialist at the University of Chicago.
It might be useful to nail down our terms here. Insomnia isn’t just staying up late. It’s the inability to sleep—or to fall back asleep if you wake in the middle of the night—with no obvious impediments to explain it. Implicit in the definition, too, is that the deprivation negatively impacts your ability to function the next day. It’s acute when it lasts a few days or weeks; if it extends longer than a month, it’s considered chronic.
If this sounds like you, know first that you’re going through the same thing as a lot of people. And also know there are a few simple strategies you can deploy to get yourself back on track.
Who Needs Sleep?
It is extremely understandable if you have cut yourself some slack during these sheltered-in-place times. Maybe your diet has gone a little snack-heavy. Maybe you shifted your work hours to make way for childcare or self-care. Maybe you stopped flossing. Only natural. But sleep is something worth preserving—even though that’s harder than it may sound.
“During times of increased stress, sleep is often the first biological system to malfunction,” says Candice Alfano, director of the University of Houston’s Sleep and Anxiety Center. A pandemic is stressful like magma is hot. In a recent online survey conducted by Alfano and her research team, the rate of respondents reporting “severe to very severe problems” either falling or staying asleep was double what they normally see.
That tossing and turning has real health implications. As neuroscientist and sleep expert Matthew Walker detailed in a 2019 TED Talk, sleep deprivation makes your brain slower, weakens your immune system, and increases the likelihood of all kinds of mental and physical woes as you age. “Sleep loss will leak down into every nook and cranny of your physiology,” Walker said in his viral presentation. “Sleep, unfortunately, is not an optional lifestyle luxury. Sleep is a nonnegotiable biological necessity. It is your life support system.”
Unfortunately, life amid Covid-19 disrupts that sleep in any number of ways. There’s the anxiety, sure, not just about the disease itself but about financial security, childcare, and all the other ancillary effects of a society in suspended animation. “If you’re not tackling those problems head-on during the day, then when it’s just you and your brain at night and there’s no distractions, all of those problems, all those worries, all those stressers are going to come bubbling to the surface,” says Medalie. “The thoughts are going to produce emotional responses, the emotional responses are going to produce more thoughts, and the realization that time has passed and you’re not sleeping produces anxiety.”
It gets worse. “The relationship actually runs in both directions,” says Alfano. “Even during times of low stress, sleep loss elevates next-day anxiety, potentially creating a vicious cycle.”
While stress contributes greatly to sleep woes, it’s not the only factor in play. Staying mostly at home makes for a more sedentary lifestyle than your body might be accustomed to, which can make falling asleep harder. You may be looking at your screen even more than usual, pulling to refresh for the latest Covid-19 tolls or mind-smoothing TikTok loops late into the night. While you do, the blue-spectrum light emanating from your phone tells your brain to stop producing melatonin, the hormone that regulates your sleep-wake cycle, also known as the circadian rhythm.
And while bedtime gets much of the focus when it comes to sleep problems, a morning without routine—there’s no office to report to, after all—can be just as detrimental. “A lot of people don’t realize that the wake-up time and getting out of bed and exposure to light is probably the most important thing that regulates our circadian rhythm,” says Jason Ong, a neurologist who focuses on sleep medicine at Northwestern University, referring to the biological process. “Your brain is confused about what time zone it’s supposed to be in.”
The circumstances wrought by Covid-19, in other words, seem almost specifically engineered to interfere with your sleep cycles. Fortunately, there’s plenty you can do to reclaim your shut-eye.
Let’s start with that looming existential dread, since it’s probably the most pandemic-specific contributor to your tossing and turning. The bad news is, you’re probably stuck with it, at least until a vaccine arrives.
You can still take steps to manage it, though, especially as night falls. And it starts with not doing anything at all. “Make sure you have a scheduled hour of ‘me time,’” particularly if you’re sheltering in place with others,” says Medalie. “Everybody needs at least one hour by themselves.”
How you spend that time is up to you. But as you get closer to bedtime, make sure it’s genuinely relaxing. ”Instead of watching or reading the news—most content is repetitive anyway—engage in quiet, calming activities under dim lighting, such as reading, talking with family or friends, or listening to music,” says Alfano.
This all might sound easier said than done. But small adjustments can make a big difference. Don’t bring your smartphone into the bedroom, for starters, or tablets or laptops or any screens at all. If you have a TV in there, consider jettisoning it. Alfanso suggests putting all your charging cords in the kitchen, and setting a reminder for an hour before bedtime to plug in all your electronics and bid them adieu until the morning. Old-school alarm clocks still exist! And some even have built-in light functions designed to help you sleep and wake up on a regular schedule. (WIRED recommends the Homelabs Sunrise Alarm Clock, but you’ve got no shortage of options.)
Northwestern’s Ong also researches how mindfulness techniques can improve sleep, especially for those with chronic insomnia. “It can be a potential tool to help reduce that vigilance, give your brain some signals that it doesn’t need to go into that fight-or-flight mode, or that if it does, here are some tools to help decompress, so that you have a more fair chance for your sleep system to help you fall asleep and stay asleep,” he says.
A simple way to start is to think of yourself as a trainspotter. (Presumably not one from the 1996 Danny Boyle film.) Much like a trainspotter observes railcars passing by from a distance, try to observe what’s happening in your mind without directly engaging with it. If you do find yourself boarding at some point, just get off at the next station. “As you do that, you will start to train yourself that it’s OK to focus on this present moment,” says Ong.
Apps also offer an entry point to anxiety-quashing meditation, although that complicates the whole “remove the phone from the bedroom” scenario. WIRED contributors have had some success with Calm, which offers a range of soothing sessions. Even Swiss Army workout app Peloton has a sleep meditation section, including at least one class specifically designed for the 3 am wake-up.
A to Zzzzz
Getting good sleep involves more than just clearing your head. The experts WIRED spoke with all agree that clearing your bedroom is just as important. “The bedroom should just be a bedroom. Just a room for your bed, and maybe your dresser, and nothing else in there,” says Medalie. “Sleep and sex are the only two things that should happen in the bedroom.”
To cut all the way down on distractions, consider blackout curtains or shades; you can get both from IKEA or any blinds shop. They help keep your room dark and cozy no matter what the moon or streetlights are doing outside your window. Building an association between a sound machine and sleep can help you conk out consistently; our favorite is the LectroFan Classic, but there’s a wide range of prices and features to choose from. And lowering the temperature helps cue your body that it’s time to snooze.
“We sleep best when our bedroom is dark, quiet, and cool,” says Alfano. “Blackout curtains, eye mask, ear plugs, white noise machines, an overhead fan, and lowered thermostat settings can all be helpful.”
Otherwise, remember all those things that make it harder to sleep? Do the opposite! If you for some reason have no choice but to look at your smartphone or tablet, at least use a setting that filters out the blue light to give your brain a break. On iOS, head to Settings > Display & Brightness > Night Shift. From there you can set a nightly schedule for your device to switch over to a softer color palette, or manually enable it until the next day. On Android it’ll vary slightly depending on your device, but you should be able to find it from Settings > Display > Night Light. (Some manufacturers have their own name for it, like Night Mode or Blue Light Filter, but it should be easy enough to spot.)
And while it’s tempting in these times to ramp up the alcohol and caffeine intake, both will get in the way of a good night’s rest. Coffee and soda will rile you up, while booze will hamper the quality of sleep you get. “Alcohol may indeed reduce the amount of time it takes to fall asleep, but it also reliably reduces total sleep time, because it results in lighter sleep and more awakenings during the second half of the night,” says Alfano.
When morning comes around, make sure you’re waking up at the same time no matter what, says Ong. Not only that, but get out of bed and start your day. Your circadian rhythm will thank you. Besides, the more you use for bed for lounging rather than sleeping, the less your body and mind associate it with flipping the off switch.
It can feel impossible to sleep when the world is in turmoil. Why dream when you can fret deep into the night? But you owe it to yourself to get as much as you can. And with a little structure and a few new habits, you might find that it’s easier than you thought.
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