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How Is the Pandemic Affecting Sleep?

This information was accurate at the time of publication. Due to the changing nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, some information may have changed since the original publication date.

Amidst a global pandemic, many people are finding it hard to fall asleep at night. Kelly Baron, PhD, MPH, DBSM, associate professor in the Department of Family & Preventive Medicine at University of Utah Health, is conducting a research study on how the pandemic is affecting people's routines. She offers us some advice on ways to improve our sleep.

How is the pandemic impacting sleep?

I'm looking at sleep in two different ways. There are people who are already experiencing sleep problems and some of those are being exacerbated by this pandemic, mostly due to anxiety. There are also people who have never had sleep problems before who are experiencing them because of all the uncertainty and changes that are going on.

But I also see some people who are having some improvements in their sleep. Data from Withings and from Fitbit show that, on average, people were sleeping about 12 hours more at night in the general population—mainly because we're not commuting to work quite as often.

Why are people having strange dreams?

Dreaming is a normal part of sleep. We alternate between REM and non-REM sleep, and during REM is when your brain is consolidating memories from short-term to long-term and processing emotions. That's one of the reasons why people with post-traumatic stress disorder, an emotional disorder, have bad dreams. It's thought that dreams and recurrent dreams are part of that experience of trauma for them.

We're all going through stress during this pandemic, and it's likely that our emotions are influenced in the flavor of our dreams. If your dreams are disrupting your sleep or causing emotional upset during the day, there are treatments for people.

What are some things people can do to improve their sleep?

People are losing their rhythms with sleep. We've evolved to be on a biological rhythm that is generated internally by our brain. But it's locked into our day through the environmental cues. People lose that cue when they wake up with an alarm to go to work or school.

My first recommendation is to get on a schedule. Not everybody has that opportunity, but there are people who perhaps can sleep in an hour later, go to bed an hour or two later, and that actually allows them to have a more restful sleep versus somebody with a busier schedule in the morning.

Another thing is to limit your media exposure in the evening. Reading the news can get quite upsetting and should, if possible, not be done right before sleep. Try to have a quiet wind down time.

Lastly, if you cannot go to bed, don't force it. Don't stay in bed and toss and turn and ruminate. If you have to, get up and do something else until you feel the need to sleep.

What advice do you have to parents in terms of getting their kids to have good enough sleep?

Both parents and kids need some sort of schedule such as getting up at the same time and going to bed around the same time. But you don't have to drag them out of bed at 7:00 in the morning. If it's possible, kids could sleep in a little bit and do their schoolwork at a time that's better for their biology. Having some wind down time and regular bedtime is better for their schedule and keeps them on a regular rhythm. Children crave consistency and regularity.

Where can you get help for sleep during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Sleep centers are still open. For example, I'm doing teletherapy and behavioral treatment over videoconference. We're doing home sleep tests and everything is kept safe and healthy.

Stress can greatly disrupt our sleep. And if you sleep poorly, it can be harder to handle stress. Working on sleeping better is one thing you can do to help you feel stronger in the face of adversity.

We are recruiting men and women ages 18+ to participate in a 3 month study of sleep, diet and physical activity during the COVID-19 Pandemic.

- This interview is excerpted from a video cast with Silicon Slopes