If this were a good Medium post, it would have a title like “7 Ways to Combat Insomnia Caused by Coronavirus Anxiety,” but I don’t have any strategies to share. I only have some words that will hopefully remind you that if you are struggling with sleep during this weird, anxious time, you are not alone.
As evidence that I don’t have any strategies to share, I’m writing this at 5:30 in the morning, having been awake for at least four hours. I had a nightmare that I was out in public somewhere and couldn’t stop touching my nose and my eyes. I was certain I was going to get COVID-19 but was unable to stop myself from touching my face. When I awoke, I was, of course, touching my face in real life, so the anxiety followed me from dreamtime to wakefulness.
If you‘re like me and you need them, there are well documented strategies for getting better sleep. The National Sleep Foundation has 11 “tips & tricks” for improving your sleep. Research shows pink noise is effective at improving sleep. Sleep hygiene — your habits in the hours before bedtime and once you’re under the covers — is crucial. With technology, you can hack your sleep. These are good tips and if you’re struggling with sleep, any of those articles is a good place to start.
My sleep hygiene is immaculate — I’ve done the research on how to improve your sleep, and I follow all of the best practices. I started experiencing regular insomnia due to stress and anxiety in my early 20s. (That was around the start of my lost decade; I wonder if those two things are related?) Last year, an especially tumultuous year for me, it became severe. After a fairly bad accident in September, I decided that I needed to slow down and focus on just one area of self-improvement. I chose sleep, believing that improving my sleep was a necessary first step to improving everything else. I still believe that.
(I’m so committed to improving my sleep that when I signed up for the dating app Hinge, which gives you prompts for photos and statements for your profile, under “something that’s non-negotiable for me” I said sleep.)
I did the research and developed good habits. I learned to love going to bed early on Friday and Saturday nights so that I could maintain my usual wake-up time on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Peacefully and quietly, I pursued my nightly eight hours.
And then the novel coronavirus shut down Los Angeles (and the rest of the world), and it all went to hell. My habits were thrown out of whack the first two weeks, and my sleep never recovered. I’m now sleeping worse than I have since early 2019, when I went six weeks rarely getting more than two or three hours of sleep a night.
“The two most feared diseases throughout developed nations are dementia and cancer,” writes Matthew Walker. “Both are related to inadequate sleep.”
When I began working on my sleep in earnest last year, I read the book Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, a sleep scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. This book stresses the importance of consistent, high-quality sleep and makes suggestions — at both the individual and the societal level — on how to make that more universally accessible.
I think about this book often, but the thing I come back to again and again when I’m awake at 3 o’clock in the morning is the science connecting sleep quality and dementia. “The two most feared diseases throughout developed nations are dementia and cancer,” Walker writes. “Both are related to inadequate sleep.” According to Walker, the research shows “that sleep disruption and Alzheimer’s disease interact in a self-fulfilling negative spiral that can initiate and/or accelerate the condition.”
I won’t go into that research here — for that and more great information on sleep, I highly recommend Walker’s book — but I will note that this scares me lifeless. On top of this, research shows a connection between depression and dementia, and Walker also notes the negative effect of depression on sleep quality. This web of sleep quality, mental health and dementia is especially worrying for someone who, like me, experiences poor sleep and has a family history of both depression and dementia.
When I say that lack of sleep is killing me, this is what I mean. I don’t mean that it’s killing me in the near term — though lack of sleep hurts the immune system, and I’d much prefer a robust immune system these days. I mean that it has the potential to dramatically shorten my life in the long-term.
Is this the fault of the coronavirus? Not exactly: I have a history of poor sleep. But when I was employing every strategy in the sleep hygiene arsenal before the pandemic — and experiencing blessedly improved sleep — it’s hard not to look at it as the cause of my renewed insomnia. For that, I do blame the virus.