My first brush with a pandemic-induced sleep disorder began with insomnia. While my usual 11 p.m. bedtime began to move later and later out of sheer anxiety over the fast spreading virus, the tossing and turning at 1 a.m. came soon after. Those fits of unrest quickly morphed into waking up, frustrated, at 3 a.m. and watching the entirety of early 2000s rom-coms before falling back into a fitful sleep. Once I started consistently waking up at 5:45 a.m. and staying awake, praying my matcha latte would carry me to the 5 p.m. finish line, I knew that this “coronasomnia” I had been reading about had finally come for me.
The United States, according to sleep experts, saw a rise in sleep disorders as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic throughout 2020. Because of fear and stress over our physical and mental health, the wellbeing of family and friends, our jobs and the like, our quality of sleep dropped. Taking its place were vivid, questionable dreams and an increased use of melatonin.
With the one-year anniversary of quarantining at home upon us and a return to life as we knew it getting further away, prioritizing restful sleep should be high on our mental health to-do list in 2021.
But how do we make effective, restful sleep a priority this year?
How to Make 2021 the Year of Prioritizing Sleep
According to Dr. Ruth Benca, M.D., Ph.D., the Chair of Psychiatry & Human Behavior at the University of California, Irvine, people can start by doing just that: making sleep a top priority in their lives. “You have to set aside a sufficient amount of time to sleep at night,” Dr. Benca tells SheKnows.
As of 2020, the National Sleep Foundation recommends that healthy adults under the age of 65 need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night. Adults over 65 need between 7 and 8 hours, and “babies, young children, and teens” need even more than 9 hours. Consistently sleeping the recommended amount of hours a night, Dr. Benca says, will benefit people both physically and mentally.
Those benefits, for those not already living with a severe sleep or medical disorder, can then lead to a noticeably improved quality of life in a number of ways.
“An improved sense of daytime sleepiness, or fatigue; your mood […] your cognition, like your attention and vigilance; learning and memory; and higher cognitive function like driving [all improve],” explains Dr. Clete A. Kushida, M.D, Ph. D, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford University Medical Center. “Data on [short and long-term benefits] also suggests improved body weight and less cardiovascular associations like heart attacks, high blood pressure and diabetes.”
These benefits, unfortunately, won’t occur for people who already have a significant sleep or medical disorders, Dr. Kushida continues. For those living with an issue like chronic insomnia, for example, their sleep quality would be impacted regardless of how long the person is sleeping.
As it turns out, taking the correct steps to achieve a better sleep going forward isn’t a mysterious answer found after a riddle: you do so by adopting habits like improving your nutrition and exercising regularly, Dr. Kushida further explains. Habits that, admittedly, have become more difficult in post-pandemic life. You can also adopt a regular sleeping schedule—yes, even on the weekends.
“We want everything lined up with your body’s clock,” Dr. Karen L. Lee, M. D., a pediatric sleep specialist at NYU Langone’s Comprehensive Epilepsy Center—Sleep Center, tells SheKnows. “That requires a regular schedule. We start with fixing a regular wakeup time, one you choose every day that is reasonable, even on the weekdays and weekends.” Dr. Lee, who is also a clinical assistant professor at the Department of Neurology at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine, also explains that while sleep times may fluctuate occasionally, in creating a regular sleep schedule, you don’t want it to fluctuate by several hours. It helps to determine when you need to be awake the next day, count how many recommended hours you need to sleep and include a “buffer zone” before that: that wind down time that allows relaxation and preparing the body to naturally fall asleep.
“Because once you start trying, therein lies the problem: you don’t try to go to sleep,” she says. “[In the buffer zone], you start turning down the light, stop engaging in any emotionally and physically involved activity. That will allow you to drift into sleep. So then you start getting on this regular rhythm and a regular bedtime.”
Proper sleep hygiene, the Sleep Foundation echoes, contributes to “a stable sleep schedule” and “consistent, uninterrupted sleep” thanks to factors like a cool, dark room and an absence of technology.
How the COVID-19 Pandemic Upended Sleep in 2020
2020 was the year sleep disorders and general sleep deprivation found their way into the mainstream health conversation. In between “the severe stress of the pandemic,” which Dr. Benca details as “people afraid of being sick, people losing loved ones, people losing their jobs, being evicted from their homes, losing social contact with others,” the loss of a good night’s sleep shone a light on two common sleep disorders: insomnia and irregular sleep schedules in adults and teenagers.
Both disorders have always existed in the general population, but to varying degrees, including barely being a blip on some people’s radar. The pandemic just found a way to showcase them more significantly. “[Sleep disorders] have always been present,” explains Dr. Kushida, “but due to the pandemic’s effects on patients’ working from home, work-life balance, or job loss, the accompanying stress has caused these disorders to occur in those who might not ordinarily have these disorders. The stress for some became more severe to the point that [sleep disorders] became significant to them.”
When left untreated, the effects of sleep disorders and sleep deprivation can become risk factors for more fatal health issues. “There are categories of health that are affected by how many hours of sleep you get,” says Dr. Lee. “There’s general health, cardiovascular health, metabolic health, mental health, immunological health, human performance, cancer, pain, and mortality.” Cardiovascular health, she continues, is among the hardest hit when lack of restful sleep occurs, with the risk for stroke, heart attack, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol increasing.
What Does the State of Sleep Look like in 2021 Compared to 2020?
While creating a consistent sleep schedule and making restful sleep a priority will aid in helping people prioritize sleep in 2021, we must still unpack the reasons why people can’t sleep to get through. Dr. Benca explains that the mental health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic—the depression and anxiety causing us to lose sleep—will still have to be dealt with as the virus lives among us.
“We know that the psychiatric pandemic is going to be, in some ways, just as bad or even worse than the COVID-19 pandemic, because there’s not going to be a vaccine for that,” she says when discussing the state of sleep in 2021. “We’re going to be suffering the after effects.”
That’s why the mental health consequences of this pandemic living with us for the foreseeable future, she continues, should be a reason to make sleep a prime concern this year. “From that perspective, one of the things that we can try to do to improve our wellness is to make sure we get a good sleep every night.”