Sunday, April 5th 2020, 1:37 pm - Sleep experts explain the roots of insomnia and share tips for getting proper shut-eye in a crisis
The strains of worry and upended routine during the COVID-19 crisis aren't exactly helping people sleep well at night.
You or someone you love may be battling the novel coronavirus, or your employment may have been blown up by business shutdowns and stay-home directives. You're juggling health care with child care and cabin fever. Even if you're healthy and gainfully employed, pandemic living isn't easy.
"Everyone's routine is being disrupted. It's a severely stressful event," said Dr. Atul Khullar, an Edmonton psychiatrist and senior consultant for MedSleep, a group of sleep clinics.
This provokes anxiety and stress, exacerbating any pre-existing mental health and insomnia problems, or causing new ones, he said.
"And for some people it can be very traumatizing. They're facing losing their livelihoods. They're faced with losing their way of life. Notwithstanding that your kids are home. It's just stressor after stressor after stressor."
This isn't the stuff of which sweet dreams are made.
Whether or not you're occupied at any given moment with the task or activity in front of you, below the surface remains the psychological weight of being in unprecedented and life-altering times, said Khullar.
"It's kind of this dull ache for a lot of people, and you can only ignore it so much."
It turns out that disrupted sleep in times of crisis has deep roots, said evolutionary anthropologist David Samson, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga who studies the evolutionary links between sleep and cognition.
He's the co-author of a new study published in the journal Sleep Medicine Reviews, which explores the evolutionary connection between fear and insomnia.
Sleeplessness is in part a fear-related survival technique connected to how we evolved, he said. We had to be alert to life-threatening forces like predatory animals and severe weather, say, 1.5 million years ago. But we also lived in groups where people could take turns keeping watch at night.
"It turns out fear is actually a good thing from an evolutionary perspective," said Samson. The problem is our psyches stay on high alert when we sense threat.
"This is particularly pernicious in COVID-19, because this is not a lion in the savanna. It's not even a rival group over the next bend that's trying to take our resources."
Because we can't just chase off this problem, we are unable to extinguish our fear, he said. "It's turning into what we classically call insomnia, which is a perpetual chronic condition characterized by the inability to fall asleep."
But since sleep is critical to both emotional regulation and immune strength, said Samson, it's worth your while to establish good sleep habits.
Here are some ways to help you sleep easier in this uncertain time:
Turn off screens an hour before bed
You've heard it before, but the blue light emitted by phones, computers, routers, tablets and televisions is bad news at bedtime. Those screens blast blue-wave light that suppresses melatonin, the hormone that regulates your sleep-wake activity and makes you tired at night, said Samson.
He recommends shutting these down at least an hour before you go to bed.
Make the bedroom just for sleep
While you're at it, resist the temptation to watch Netflix in bed. "A lot of people have televisions in their rooms, and I think the science says this is pretty much a non-starter," he said.
Right now you may be forced to use a bedroom to work from home during the day, but do whatever you can to remove signs of work from your room at night, tucking away your laptop and papers. If you're using a desktop computer, throw a blanket over your whole makeshift setup.
Practice good 'light hygiene'
Less well known but just as important as turning off blue-light-emitting screens at night is getting blue-light-emitting sunshine during the day. "This is critical to enhancing our circadian rhythms, and when we amplify our circadian rhythms, it's basically cuing and synchronizing our body with the local environment," said Samson.