Coronavirus has entered our psyches and that’s not good for our sleep. Laura Castack, a lawyer on Long Island, shares a story. “I had trouble sleeping the other night and had a bad nightmare unique to COVID-19,” she says. “In the dream, I went to Shop-Rite and got some groceries. On my way out, I noticed a party in a huge warehouse. I walked in and started to mingle and talk to people. When I got home, I realized that I’d totally forgotten to practice social distancing or wash my hands. I’d touched people! When I woke up, I was really shaken.”

Laura is not alone. An editor in New York City was on vacation recently. While she was out of town, she had a hard time sleeping. When she did fall asleep, she says, “I kept having dreams of trying unsuccessfully to get somewhere. I’m sure coronavirus anxiety was affecting me. Perhaps checking the Worldometers map every night before bed hasn’t been such a good idea.”

The Connection Between Anxiety and Sleep

Life has changed since the novel coronavirus spread worldwide. “People are reporting an increase in anxiety and fears related to uncertainty,” says Dr. Julie Kolzet, Ph.D., a therapist in New York City who specializes in sleep disorders. “Those feelings often translate to sleep disturbances.” According to American Academy of Sleep Medicine, sleep disturbances “are characterized by abnormal sleep patterns that interfere with physical, mental, and emotional functioning. Stress or anxiety can cause a serious night without sleep… .”

Anxiety is a necessary response to stress that manifests in two different ways—normal anxiety, which occurs usually in response to an immediate threat, and pathological anxiety, where the threat is not obvious or immediate. Either kind can cause sleep disruption. The National Institutes of Health says that “in anxiety disorders, the individual is submitted to false alarms that may be intense, frequent, or even continuous. These false alarms may lead to a state of dysfunctional arousal that often leads to persistent sleep-wake difficulties.”

Of course, there is reason to be alarmed in these times. You may be worrying about getting infected or having a loved one get sick, or you may become obsessed with symptoms related to the virus, even if they are minor.

Financial fears may keep you up at night, or concerns about the welfare of workers across the world. Anxiety-related sleep disturbances include bad dreams and difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. And experiencing sleep deprivation is particularly scary these days because disordered sleep can cause a weakened immune system, making you more susceptible to the virus.

In a Mayo Clinic FAQ about sleep and illness, Eric J. Olson, M.D. emphasizes that a lack of sleep can adversely affect your immune system. According to Dr. Olson, “studies show that people who don’t get quality sleep or enough sleep are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus. Lack of sleep can also affect how fast you recover if you do get sick.”

Expert Tips To Ease Insomnia

“It’s important in this crisis that people are extra vigilant about their behavior,” says Dr. Kolzet. Often in a desperate quest for sleep, people act in ways that are counterproductive to getting a good night’s sleep. So, what do you do? Here are nine smart sleep tips from. Dr. Kolzet.

  1. Go to bed early. Says Dr. Kolzet, “While people think getting more sleep is the goal, trying to sleep really de-primes your sleep homeostat [which means it messes up your sleep regulation process]. Putting a lot of pressure on yourself is unwise. You can’t relax and also command yourself to go to sleep.”
  2. Avoid sleeping in.While it may be tempting to the many who have been told to “shelter in place,” staying in bed longer than usual is not conducive to a healthy sleep-wake cycle.
  3. At the same time, try not to fear the bed. If someone is anxious to begin with, Dr. Kolzet says, the health crisis may “tip them over the edge where they become especially anxious about getting enough sleep.” She recommends learning to think like a person who doesn’t have a sleep problem. The bed is not your enemy.
  4. Maintain a consistent sleep-wake routine. Keeping a regular schedule for bedtime and wake time has been shown to help stabilize sleep patterns, a necessity in warding off anxiety.
  5. Don’t use alcohol to fall asleep. This is a self-medication strategy that might seem like a good idea but may instead have negative long-term consequences such as sleep fragmentation, early morning awakenings, and daytime impairments.
  6. Take work out of the bedroom. Now that people are working at home, it’s important to maintain a routine, says Dr. Kolzet. Set up a separate workstation in your home, and keep work and sleep separate.
  7. Stay physically active. When you’re stuck at home, it can be a challenge to exercise. Given the difficulties of working out in a small space and without familiar equipment or routines, it’s important to find ways to be physically active. Get creative: “A person I know created a virtual dance party,” Dr. Kolzet says. You can use exercise videos online. Lift soup cans. Or take a daily walk.
  8. Plan your day. Try to keep things as they were before the threat of COVID-19. That is, “act as if,” says Dr. Kolzet. Get dressed. Connect with friends, write letters, and check on neighbors.
  9. Don’t catastrophize your sleep disorder. There’s enough catastrophe outside your head. Of course, worries about the health cost of a chronic insomnia or another sleep disorder is natural. But it doesn’t help to panic over a couple nights of lost sleep. “We want people to focus on sleep but not obsess about it. With some of these tips, you can learn to clean up your sleep,” says Dr. Kolzet, so that you’re fit and rested enough to face the unfolding health crisis.

Following these tips and limiting your news intake, especially right before bed, will help. If you still are having trouble sleeping in a month, you may need to talk to someone. Many doctors and therapists are set up to see patients remotely, so even if we’re still in the midst of a crisis, you can still get help.

Last Updated: Mar 31, 2020