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5 Weird Ways The Pandemic Is Messing With Your Sleep

An expert shares how to deal with the most common sleep issues exacerbated by COVID times.
Half of Canadians surveyed reported sleep issues during the pandemic.
Half of Canadians surveyed reported sleep issues during the pandemic.

Having trouble sleeping? If anxieties, fears and a disrupted routine arising from the COVID-19 pandemic are keeping you up at night, welcome to the club. So many us have lost sleep over the past year that medical experts have dubbed the phenomenon COVID-somnia.

A study published in the Journal of Sleep Research in November revealed just how common sleep issues were during the early months of the pandemic. A survey of 5,525 Canadians found that half experienced significant sleep disturbances – up from one in three before COVID-19.

“That’s pretty big. We were expecting an increase but not such an increase,” says lead author Rébecca Robillard. The worst affected: younger people, women, workers, people with family responsibilities, and people with mental health issues.

To help you get more shut-eye, we asked Robillard, director of clinical sleep research at The Royal’s Institute of Mental Health and co-director of the sleep laboratory at the University of Ottawa’s School of Psychology, for advice on five of the most common pandemic sleep problems.

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Stress dreams and nightmares

Many of us are having more vivid, strange and memorable dreams during the pandemic. In part, that’s because working from home allows for longer sleeps and more rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the best kind for intense dreams. More generally, dreams help us process emotions and challenges, and COVID-19 has caused plenty of both.

“Dreams are sensitive to our mindset in the daytime, notably to stresses and changes. Any changes in routine are likely to have an effect,” says Robillard. “Dreams might be a practice room to deal with issues.”

What’s not helpful are bad dreams that jolt us awake or leave us shaken. COVID nightmares, with themes like social distancing and contagion, are disturbing, but mental imagery at bedtime can help.

“Try to focus on very concrete images – picture scenery, focus on the details. That can influence our mind state and the content of our dreams,” says Robillard. If your nightmares are frequent and highly disruptive, imagery rehearsal therapy (IRT) or progressive deep muscle relaxation training may help.

Stress-induced teeth grinding

Are you waking up with headaches, neck pain or sore jaws? You might be grinding your teeth overnight. Last fall, over half of dentists surveyed by the American Dental Association reported seeing more cases of teeth grinding (bruxism) and other stress-related problems: chipped and cracked teeth, and symptoms of temporomandibular disorder (TMD).

“Those of us now working remotely can get up later, which makes it really tempting to watch one more episode of 'Bridgerton' before bed.”

“In most cases, teeth grinding won’t wake you, but your sleep could get lighter and be disrupted,” says Robillard. “We use the term ‘micro-arousals’ – little awakenings we don’t realize are happening or remember the next morning.” If you grind your teeth, you might also disturb your partner, she adds. “I run audiotapes of teeth grinding in my classes, and everybody cringes!”

Stress management techniques like breathing exercises and yoga can help. While you find your best stress-buster, ask your dentist about getting a protective nightguard – the grinding force of bruxism is three to 10 times stronger than chewing.

Bedtime procrastination

Are you putting off sleep on purpose? Bedtime procrastination isn’t new, but we’re doing it more during the pandemic, as many of us try to reclaim some personal time after long days of Zoom meetings and parenting.

Other factors are at play, too: Those of us now working remotely can get up later, which makes it really tempting to watch one more episode of “Bridgerton” before bed. The disruptive nature of pandemic life may decrease our sleep drive, or sleep pressure – the fatigue that normally builds up throughout the day. We’ve lost many of our time anchors, and we’re more sedentary. Working remotely also lets us nap like never before.

Some of us can stay up late without consequences, but most people feel worse physically and mentally when sleep-deprived. If that’s you, it’s probably time for a reset. “Keep in mind that you’re focusing on self-respect to some degree,” Robillard says gently. “Acknowledge the fact that sleep is as important for your health as exercising and eating right. That’s good motivation to maintain regular sleep schedules.”

Beware of the blue light ... sleep will not come easy if you're still staring at screens in the hours leading up to bedtime.
Beware of the blue light ... sleep will not come easy if you're still staring at screens in the hours leading up to bedtime.

Feeling wide awake at bedtime

Many of us are less active these days, so we expend less energy and feel less tired at bedtime. We’re also at home more, especially during winter, so we have less exposure to daylight. Both changes can mess with how sleepy we feel at night.

“Our biological clock is very sensitive to light, so it’s super-important that people take some time outside,” says Robillard. Even on grey days, we get more light outside than in.

Timing is key: get light exposure during the day, ideally in the morning, and avoid it in the evening. That includes curbing screen time: “TVs, tablets, phones, computers – they’re all mini lamps, in a way, especially those with a blue hue, which our biological clock is extra-sensitive to.”

“Many couples now have trouble sleeping in the same bed.”

Physical activity helps in two ways: Exercise, especially cardiovascular exercise, deepens sleep quality. It also boosts mental health and reduces stress. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise weekly – and if it’s outdoors, even better. If you still can’t sleep, Robillard recommends cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBTi).

Too much togetherness

Stay-at-home orders have meant a lot more together time for couples. For some, it’s too much; several countries have seen spikes in break-ups and divorces.

The pandemic has also altered the rhythms of domestic life. Working from home has allowed more people to rise and sleep when they prefer, so partners may have out-of-sync schedules. Combine that with other irritations, like feeling crowded in small apartments, and many couples now have trouble sleeping in the same bed.

New family dynamics may create frustration and resentment: if one partner wakes later and morning kid duty always falls to the other, that can cause tension, says Robillard.

Relationship issues have no quick fix, but giving each other breathing room can help. “People need ‘me time,’ and that’s OK,” says Robillard. “It’s not necessarily because they’re upset with each other, but they feel the need to withdraw a bit and reconnect with themselves.”

For more tips on sleep during the pandemic, Robillard recommends Sleep On It, a health campaign from Canadian sleep experts. You can also participate in her research on the psychological, social and financial impacts of COVID-19. Now go get some rest!

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