Insomnia, Grinding And Nightmares: How To Deal With COVID Sleep Problems

Experts reveal the most common ways COVID-related stress has disrupted our sleep cycles and how to fix them.
Always exhausted lately? Waking up in the middle of the night? Here's how to fix it.
AsiaVision via Getty Images
Always exhausted lately? Waking up in the middle of the night? Here's how to fix it.

If you’ve found yourself tossing and turning more over the past few months, you’re not alone. With the resurgence in COVID-19 cases, the constant reassessment of your own risk levels, and the ongoing conversations about booster vaccines, it’s normal to feel anxious ― and for your sleep to take a hit as a result.

“Clients have experienced a variety of sleep problems including insomnia, nightmares, twitching, irregular sleep patterns, sleep apnea and teeth grinding during the pandemic,” Merryl Reichbach, a psychotherapist and member of the Alma mental health co-practice community, told HuffPost. “Many have had nightmares, especially ones related to contamination and fears about being in public places. It’s been pretty striking.”

A good night’s rest plays an essential role in physical and mental wellness, so it’s important to tackle sleep issues before they become unmanageable. From insomnia to teeth grinding, here are expert-approved ways to cope with all your COVID stress-related sleep problems.

The most common sleep issues caused by the pandemic

Yes, “coronasomnia” (as some people call it) is a very real phenomenon. An estimated 50 to 70 million American adults have a sleep disorder such as insomnia or night terrors, according to the American Sleep Association. And research suggests that sleep problems have become more prevalent since the start of the pandemic.

A systematic review of studies conducted in 39 countries found that around 18% of the general population has experienced sleep issues this year. What’s more, the same review showed that 31% of health care professionals and 57% of patients with the coronavirus reported struggling with sleep.

Suzanne Bertisch, the clinical director of behavioral sleep medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, explained that insomnia is often paired with a “level of daytime dysfunction.” For instance, poor sleep can hinder cognitive functioning, worsen depression and negatively affect the immune system.

You could also develop issues involving your mouth: If you wake up in the morning with a tender or tense jaw, facial pain, headaches or sensitive teeth, you may be grinding your teeth while you sleep.

Many experts believe that these COVID-related sleep disturbances are a result of the chronic stress and trauma that people have experienced throughout the pandemic. When people are exposed to stressors, the body will adapt to “survive” this stress and trigger the fight-or-flight response, according to Ernesto Lira de la Rosa, a licensed clinical psychologist who is also part of the Hope for Depression Research Foundation.

“This can lead to our bodies not knowing when to stop engaging in these survival strategies. As a result, our bodies may not be able to rest,” Lira de la Rosa told HuffPost.

Practicing good sleep hygiene is the key to alleviating some of your COVID stress-related sleep problems.
Fly View Productions via Getty Images
Practicing good sleep hygiene is the key to alleviating some of your COVID stress-related sleep problems.

How to address COVID- and pandemic-related sleep issues

A universally productive approach to combating sleep issues is by practicing good sleep hygiene. That means adopting healthier nighttime habits and creating a relaxing bedroom environment that promotes quality sleep.

For example, reduce your phone usage. COVID-19 has made doomscrolling that much easier to do, so Lira de la Rosa said it’s a good idea to try and avoid your phone 30 minutes to one hour before you hit the hay.

“You can also try to help your body relax before bed by taking a warm bath or shower, drinking some soothing tea, or by engaging in some deep breathing exercises,” he added.

If you find yourself ruminating about the ongoing pandemic in the middle of the night, Reichbach suggested “doing an activity that engages the mind, but that is boring.” Some ideas include listening to less engaging podcasts or looking at guided imagery to get back to snoozing.

Though it may be counterintuitive, it can help to briefly get out of bed when you find yourself tossing and turning. Lira de la Rosa said this technique “helps your body associate the bed with the place you go to rest and sleep, rather than worry.”

While improving your sleep hygiene can combat COVID-related sleep problems, Bertisch said that complex or clinically significant sleep issues — such as chronic insomnia — typically require medical intervention. If sleep troubles persist for more than a few months and begin to significantly affect your daily functioning, she said, speak with a doctor about potential evidence-based behavioral therapies, medication or both.

For excessive teeth grinding, seeing a health provider can help you determine if you need a mouthguard or if you need dental care.

That said, it’s important to address the underlying cause overall. Experts agree that sleep struggles cannot be effectively treated without tackling the anxieties or fear related to the coronavirus.

“People have lost loved ones, jobs, their health, their place of residence. Many have also lost a sense of grounding and security in the world. These feelings … resurface at night,” Reichbach said. “A counselor will support you through your sleep issues [and] make recommendations.”

It’s nearly impossible to avoid all COVID news coverage or quell every fear you may have at any given moment, but your evening slumber doesn’t have to suffer. Creating a nighttime routine that works for you as an individual and seeking support are steps you can take to ease COVID-related sleep issues.

“I want to encourage people to be compassionate and gentle with themselves. We are going through something very difficult, and we are all trying to cope the best we can,” Lira de la Rosa said.

It may require time and patience, but you can learn to quiet your mind and body so you can experience restful and restorative sleep — even in the middle of all this.

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