Dealing With Coronasomnia?
Disrupted daily routines and uncertain futures have led to an insomnia pandemic. A sleep expert explains what you need to know to get a better night’s rest.
Before COVID-19, insomnia — the inability to fall or stay asleep — affected about 30% of the U.S. population. A year into the pandemic, many more people are now reporting problems with insomnia. This sleep disruption is not unique to Americans. People all over the world are experiencing increased bouts of insomnia caused by the coronavirus pandemic. One study in China found a 37% increase in insomnia rates at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-February 2020. In 2020, “insomnia” was Googled more times than ever before in a single year. It’s so widespread that this sleep phenomenon has its own name: “coronasomnia.”
“Coronasomnia started off as an acute problem because of its situational nature [at the onset of the pandemic],” says Dr. Daniel Barone, a neurologist and sleep medicine expert at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. “However, more than a year has passed, and coronasomnia has become a chronic issue now.”
Health Matters spoke with Dr. Barone, an associate professor of clinical neurology at Weill Cornell Medicine, about the rise of this sleep phenomenon, its root causes, and what people can do to achieve more restful sleep.
What Causes Coronasomnia?
Coronasomnia is caused by two main culprits, says Dr. Barone: disruption of routine, and ongoing stress and anxiety.
Whether juggling the demands of working from home or helping children navigate virtual schooling, our daily lives have been upended, and we’ve all had to deal with the stress of the new normal. “And then you have the general anxiety and worry about the virus itself — will I be exposed, will I be able to get the vaccine — these are all very real concerns which are playing a major role in insomnia,” says Dr. Barone.
According to Dr. Barone, many people may not have realized how critical it is to maintain a daily routine — especially when it comes to circadian rhythm, our body’s natural sleep-wake cycle. When regular routines get turned upside down, it can throw a wrench into our sleep. “When I talk about sleep, I talk a lot about conditioning the brain,” explains Dr. Barone. “For example, there’s no longer any differentiation between work life and home life. People are sometimes using their bedrooms and even their beds as a place where they work. That’s where this conditioning occurs — the brain begins to associate the bedroom or bed as a place of work and stress instead of a place of rest.”
Sustained stress and anxiety also contribute to coronasomnia. When the body is stressed, it produces cortisol, the “fight-or-flight” hormone. “This makes it harder for the body to get into a relaxed state,” says Dr. Barone.
Health Consequences of Coronasomnia
While it’s natural to lose some sleep over temporary stress, the ongoing pandemic has made coronoasomnia a chronic condition for many.
Chronic insomnia is defined as difficulty falling or staying asleep for at least three nights a week that persists for at least three months. Over time, if left unaddressed, it can lead to health problems such as an increased risk of hypertension, obesity, anxiety, depression, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. It can also lead to a suppressed immune system, which can make the body less able to fight off viruses.
One study, in particular, observed what happens when people get less than six hours of sleep after being exposed to the common cold. Those who slept more than six hours were much less likely to develop the cold than those who slept less than six hours. “If you’re not sleeping well and exposed to a virus, there is likely an increased risk of developing it,” says Dr. Barone.
In addition, the pandemic’s frequent lockdowns and gym closures have led to more sedentary lifestyles. This can lead to weight gain, which in turn increases a person’s risk of obstructive sleep apnea, especially if they were overweight pre-COVID-19. “That can disrupt their sleep by having repetitive stoppages of breathing. While it’s not necessarily related to COVID itself, it relates to this pandemic and being quarantined for a long period of time.”
Mental health is also a significant factor to consider. “If somebody has anxiety or depression, the risk of insomnia is going to increase,” explains Dr. Barone. At the same time, insomnia increases the risk of developing anxiety and depression. “What tends to happen, and I see this in my practice all the time, is that they feed off each other.” Add a global pandemic and it’s a perfect recipe for perpetuated sleep issues.
Ways to Cope
While coronasomnia may be a new phenomenon, Dr. Barone says there are simple ways to address it. It starts by setting boundaries. First, he stresses the importance of only using the bedroom for sleep and intimacy — not for work — so that the brain recognizes it as a place of relaxation instead of stress. Second, even if you are spending most of your days at home, be consistent with your daily routines, bedtimes, and wake times.
If you’re prone to worrying and ruminating once your head hits the pillow at night, Dr. Barone suggests trying a guided meditation right before bed. A weighted blanket may prove useful, too. These tools will help you unwind and signal your brain that it’s time to sleep.
Finally, remember the healthy habits that can help relieve insomnia and improve sleep. These include daily exercise, getting sunshine early in the day (which helps to regulate the body’s circadian rhythm), and turning off screens at night. “I tell my patients, ‘Do something boring before bed,’ so that they’re not stimulated and their brain and body can prepare for sleep.”
It’s important to seek medical care if you’re experiencing persistent sleep problems. “Overall, good health comes from good sleep,” says Dr. Barone. “One of the best things you can do to remain healthy is focusing on good sleep and good sleep habits.”
Learn more about sleep medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian.
Daniel A. Barone, M.D., is a neurologist and sleep medicine expert at the Center for Sleep Medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and an associate professor of clinical neurology at Weill Cornell Medicine. He treats patients with all forms of sleep disorders, including sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, insomnia, and narcolepsy. He is certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and is a member of the American Academy of Neurology and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. He is also the author of Let’s Talk About Sleep.