The Current

Can't sleep? Here are some tips to tackle pandemic-induced insomnia

Have you had trouble sleeping since the pandemic started? Sleep experts Dr. Elliott Lee and Luc Beaudoin give us some advice on how to catch some Zs.

Mental exercises, physical activities among experts' suggestions

A crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic can lead to insomnia, sleep experts say. (Maridav/Shutterstock Images)

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Performer Veronica Antipolo's insomnia is so bad, she's half-considered changing her work schedule.

"I actually joked with a friend the other day. I said, 'You know, I might as well just take a night shift somewhere because I'm just up all night,'" she told The Current's Matt Galloway.

Antipolo's lack of sleep is no laughing matter, though. She says she's constantly waking up in the middle of the night and struggling to go back to sleep — and the anxiety from the pandemic isn't helping. 

"It's terrible because in the day I can't nap, because right now we're in virtual school," she said. "So I have to stay up for my daughter, and the anxiety builds on itself."

Antipolo is not alone in the fight against pandemic-induced insomnia. According to Dr. Elliott Lee, medical director of the sleep disorder clinic at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre, there's been a rise in insomnia- and sleep-related complaints at his clinic since the beginning of the pandemic.

"We know from our recent publication … that up to 50 per cent of people now are complaining of insomnia difficulties in Canada, well above what the usual rate was before, which was closer to a third of a people," he said, referring to findings published in the Journal of Sleep Research in November 2020.

All of this uncertainty comes to visit right in the middle of the night.-Veronica Antipolo

Antipolo says she's feeling a lot of uncertainty about her child's schooling — and it's having an effect on her professional life.

"You get sometimes 48 hours notice with school, and it makes for an uncertain future," she said. "I don't know whether I should be looking for a full-time job … or I should just stay in self-employment."

"All of this uncertainty comes to visit right in the middle of the night, and [it] sits with me and holds my hand [and it] doesn't let me go."

Lee said the pandemic has put a lot of unpredictability — around job security, child schooling and mental health — into people's lives, and that's causing a lot of stress and anxiety.

"This overall lack of control and loss of balance in their lives is contributing to an overall [physiologic] arousal that is manifesting as sleep problems," he said.

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Luc Beaudoin, an adjunct professor of education and cognitive science at Simon Fraser University in B.C., said there are things people can do to prevent stress from manifesting before sleep.

"One strategy, for instance, is for people to journal their concerns … far enough before bedtime … and maybe jot down a few thoughts about what to do about them," he said.

"Then, by the time you get into bed, you need a mindset that this is not a place for problem-solving."

Similarly, Lee recommends preparing contingency plans for stressful events that are likely to occur. 

"This can give people a feeling of being at least a little prepared when such uncertainties occur, and then give a sense of comfort and relief to help facilitate sleep," he said.

He said if there's a distinct possibility that your child's school will switch to remote learning, for example, having backup child care in place, or a plan to adjust work hours, if feasible, could help you sleep better. 

If uncertainty is keeping you up at night, try preparing contingency plans for events that could lead to stressful situations. (amenic181/ Shutterstock)

To keep your brain from going around in circles, Beaudoin recommends occupying it with concrete thinking, such as spelling simple words or picturing simple images like going for a walk.

"If you think of problem-solving, it's very abstract," he said. "Whereas focusing on a concrete thing, in general, it's actually less stressful." 

Physical activity at the right time

Another way to combat insomnia is by attempting to occupy your day with as many pleasurable activities as possible, said Lee.

"I think sleep at night starts first with activity during the day, so make sure you're doing good things during the day," he said.

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Lee recommends activities like exercise and cooking because they're enjoyable and bring a sense of accomplishment.

It's important to do these activities during the daytime and not in the middle of the night, said Lee. He said doing physical activity in the middle of the night — such as cleaning, which is what Antipolo sometimes does when she can't go back to sleep — can actually keep you awake.

"So when you clean the house, you might feel a little bit good about yourself and what you've done," he said. "But fundamentally, if that keeps continuing, you may inadvertently be training yourself to stay up in the middle of the night or wake up."

"It's like giving yourself a reward for waking up in the middle of the night, and then you condition yourself to actually keep waking up so you can keep cleaning and get things."

If one really feels a need to do an activity in the middle of the night, Lee recommends doing something boring that would make you want to fall asleep, "so as to not reward yourself for staying up in the middle of the night." 


Written by Mouhamad Rachini, Produced by Matt Meuse and Ines Colabrese.

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