Nfld. & Labrador

Trouble sleeping? Don't worry — it's totally normal during tough times, expert says

Before the pandemic, Dr. Sheila Garland studied how the crushing news of cancer diagnoses affected sleeping habits. She has advice for people worried about COVID-19.

If problems last more than three weeks, it might be time to change things up

Many people will experience trouble sleeping in times of troubling news, says psychologist Sheila Garland. (OKcamera/Shutterstock)

With a global pandemic wreaking havoc on all aspects of human life, Dr. Sheila Garland says it's perfectly normal to be losing some sleep right now.

As a clinical psychologist at Memorial University, part of her research has been about the effects of devastating news on sleep habits.

She primarily followed breast and prostate cancer patients as they navigated their way through treatment, and up to one year after treatment ended.

Her research showed that after an initial shock, most people tend to adjust.

"[When] they get their feet underneath them again, for most people their sleep goes back to normal. But there is a proportion of individuals whose sleep does not go back to normal and those are the ones that I am concerned about," Garland said. "I imagine we would see the same thing happen here with the COVID crisis."

Garland, a clinical psychologist at Memorial University, says it is normal for people to experience trouble sleeping right now. File photo. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Increased anxiety can lead to short-term bouts of sleep disruption, and Garland said with the news being overwhelmingly dedicated to COVID-19, it's no surprise that people are reporting trouble sleeping.

The biggest tip she has for people is to disconnect 90 minutes before bedtime. Unplug the devices, sit in dim lighting and try to do something relaxing.

If at first you cannot sleep, rather than toss and turn, you should just give up.

"It's best to get out of bed. To stop trying. To break that sleep effort. Go somewhere else," she said. "And then just try again later."

Avoid electronic devices

The worst thing you can do, Garland said, is to pick up your phone.

Devices late at night are bad for two reasons. One — "They keep us engaged with the material we are reading. So our brain never really gets a chance to disengage. That's a bad thing. Our brain wants to disengage and fall asleep," Garland said.

Browsing your social media feeds while lying awake at night is not an effective way to get to sleep, says Garland, and can lead to more stress. (Ryan Cooke/CBC)

The second issue is that your brain isn't trained to handle stress in the middle of the night.

"We don't make good decisions and we don't think very clearly at that time. So we could be making things worse at that time by engaging in the material," Garland said.

This unusual time could be make or break for some people's sleep habits.

With all the time in the world, some people might be inclined to sleep in later, thus causing themselves to stay up later and easing their way into unhealthy habits.

For people who already deal with bouts of insomnia, Garland said this pandemic could be a chance to hit the restart button and try new things.

Whatever you are going through right now, Garland wants to assure people that anything right now is a normal reaction.

"We consider it normative to have acute insomnia — which would be insomnia that lasts, you know, usually about two weeks or so — in response to any stressful event, and this would certainly classify as that."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from CBC Newfoundland Morning

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