How did you sleep?
“Is your sleep schedule a mess lately?” host Kim Mills begins the podcast by asking. If your answer is a tired “yes”, you’re not alone. Mills reflects how the “uncertainty, stress and disrupted routines we’ve all experienced” during the Covid-19 pandemic have taken a toll on our sleep.
“In fact, the American Psychological Association found that two in three people surveyed have reported disrupted sleep since the pandemic began, either sleeping more or less than before.
Mills goes on to ask how these disrupted sleep patterns might be affecting our physical and mental health, how the listener could treat their troubled sleep patterns and, perhaps most importantly, is the so-called “coronasomnia” permanent, even once the pandemic is over?
Dr Jennifer Martin, a clinical psychologist and expert in sleep medicine, weighs in for this podcast episode.
“The changes in our habits and our routines and the levels of stress and anxiety have been having a direct impact on sleep, not just for a few people, but for the majority of people,” she affirms.
What Martin has also seen that reflects this increase in disrupted sleepers is the rise in sales of over-the-counter sleep aids and melatonin – a “herbal supplement often touted as a treatment for insomnia”.
Sales in these remedies “have tripled or doubled depending on where you look in the last year compared to the year prior”, Martin says.
“So, not only are people having trouble with their sleep, but they’re trying to figure out what to do about it.”
The pandemic has not only affected how we sleep, but also what we dream about. Last year, Kathy Katella reported for Yale Medicine that people have been having “strange, intense, colourful and vivid dreams – and many are having disturbing nightmares related to Covid-19”, something Martin says does not surprise her.
“After we experience something stressful or traumatic, one of the ways that our mind potentially processes those experiences is during REM sleep, and it’s not uncommon for people to have disturbing dreams or nightmares about events that happened to them during the day,” she says.
There is a similar effect with natural disasters, and when people experience individual traumas, our brains need to process what has been going on.
Both your brain and your body need sleep
Sleep is more than just closing your eyes and opening them again a few hours later; it has a profound impact on all aspects of life. “Sleep is an event that occurs all over our body and everywhere in our brain,” Martin says.
Physically, insufficient sleep affects metabolism, can increase the risk of obesity and heart disease and worsens our memory. Mentally, not sleeping well affects our mood – the old adage of “waking up on the wrong side of the bed” rings true here – and it also makes us less able to cope and adapt to emotional stressors when they occur in our everyday lives.
“So, the consequences of not sleeping well are pretty widespread,” explains Martin.
The episode also explores what happens when we do sleep well. Martin says there is growing evidence that when sleep issues are treated, people experience lower blood pressure and better moods, and also seem to cope better. “That’s kind of the good news story here,” she adds.
How to sleep better
Mills brings the conversation back to “coronasomnia”, asking what we all want to know: “Do you think we’re likely to learn anything from this pandemic experience about sleep, and the importance of sleep, that will be really useful going forward?”
“One of the things I learned is that I think we have all been underestimating how much we might actually need to sleep,” Martin says. Through the pandemic, we have realised how important getting a good night’s rest is for us, and there are several practices we can use to get there – one of which being mindfulness.
Indeed, being mindful about how much sleep you may need is important to balance your life (and work) around proper resting and sleeping times; how much sleep you might need might look different for everyone, you may need a little more or less than someone else, and it is important to respect your body’s cues.
Martin also suggests setting up creative boundaries to maintain a work/life balance – which is ever important with so many more people working from home – so that work doesn’t encroach on your personal time and sleeping habits.
For the sleep-deprived podcast lover, this author also recommends Nothing Much Happens, a sleep cast of “bedtime stories for grownups” narrated by a soothing voice to sleep-train your brain and lull you into dreamland. DM/ML
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