Wide Awake? It Could Be COVID-Somnia

October 30, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has changed everything, so it’s not surprising that it has affected sleep patterns worldwide. In fact, sleep disturbance caused by the COVID-19 health crisis is so common that some neurologists have given it a name—COVID-Somnia.

A recent article in Neurology Today explains the prevalence of COVID-Somnia: “From insomnia to hypersomnia, night terrors to the misuse of sleep medications, the phenomenon is being reported and treated not only in people recovering from COVID-19, but in the far larger number of people whose lives have been turned upside down by fear and social isolation.” Sleep disturbance, in other words, is affecting everyone.

Dissolution of Daily Schedules

For a scientific viewpoint on sleep, we consulted Professor Gregory Ragland, PhD, who teaches in the Integrative Biology Department at CU Denver. Although his research more often focuses on hibernation in insects, he did provide some answers about why humans sleep. “Why we sleep, in an evolutionary sense, is not completely understood,” he said. “But all animals (even insects!) share a remarkably similar set of genes that function as a molecular clock, setting an internal 24-hour timer that makes us sleepy and wakeful in predictable rhythms,” he added.

Essentially, COVID-Somnia results from interference with our daily patterns. People who once commuted to work may be working longer shifts (healthcare workers, for instance), working from home, or not working at all (due to unemployment or furlough). Children of all ages have replaced their brick-and-mortar schools with online learning. Stay-at-home orders, quarantine, and isolation have drastically disrupted everyday life.

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All these changes to our daily patterns can negatively affect sleep. According to Neurology Today, “Dissolution of daily schedules, reduced exposure to sunlight (particularly in the morning), excessive daytime napping, and excessive use of electronic media (particularly near bedtime) all contribute to disrupted sleep patterns.” Ragland agrees: “The collateral change in our work schedules alone is enough to change our sleep schedule.”

Unprecedented Increase in Stress

But it isn’t just that our daily schedules have changed. There is also an unprecedented amount of anxiety. The fear of getting COVID-19. Financial stress. Natural disasters. And in the United States, 2020 has also been plagued by police violence against Black people and a divisive election. People are living through a once-in-a-century pandemic—and an unprecedented amount of stress.

And stress is a big cause of sleep problems. “Being stressed or anxious affects our timer and our sleep patterns,” Ragland said.

What Can We Do About COVID-Somnia?

Sleep scientists and psychologists recommend getting morning sun, doing regular exercise (but not immediately before going to sleep), and stopping eating at least two hours before bedtime. Dark and cold bedrooms also improve sleep, so close the blinds and turn down the thermostat. And it’s important to avoid screens—computer, television, smart phones, and other devices—for a few hours before going to bed, because blue light sends signals to the brain that you should be awake. Digital sleep training programs and apps can help, as well as meditation apps such as Headspace or podcasts like “Nothing Much Happens,” which provides soothing bedtime stories for adults.

Ultimately, when the pandemic comes to an end and people can return to more normal routines, a good night’s sleep will be more than just a dream. When that happens, then perhaps we can put the term COVID-Somnia to rest, too.