Yes, We're All Still Sleeping Miserably
Before the pandemic hit the U.S. in full force in 2020, I rarely had trouble falling asleep. In fact, I can remember precisely when sleeplessness crept up on me: in 2001, when I was very depressed; in 2018, when I quit drinking; and occasionally after moving to a new home, when I'd usually be nervous about safety for the first few weeks. But starting in 2020, I joined many of my fellow Americans in suffering intermittent bouts of that absolute demon, insomnia — or 'coronasomnia' as it's now often referred to.
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, Google users in the U.S. logged 2.77 million searches for "insomnia" in just the first five months of 2020, an increase of 58% versus the same period in each of the previous three years. Makes sense.
When I got proper treatment for my depression in 2001, adjusted to the lack of booze coursing through my body in 2018, and began to feel safer in my new places of residence at various points in my teen and adult life, the insomnia went away. But coronasomnia is different.
My coronasomnia goes away and comes back again over and over. It's not that I can't sleep; it's that I don't get as much sleep as I wish, at the time of night when I want to get it. Sometimes I have trouble falling asleep. Sometimes I have trouble staying asleep. And then I go through phases where I'm sleeping as I wish, but only for a few weeks, or perhaps a couple of months. Soon enough, the irregularity begins again.
I know I'm not alone. In fact, there are so many issues with sleeplessness, that there's a new trend in hotel marketing: the sleep vacation. In the course of researching this article, I learned about the Rosewood Hotels and Resorts Alchemy of Sleep Retreats, and I am waiting for my invitation.
"During waking hours, guests can partake in what we call 'AWE' experiences that help them be mindful and exert energy so they can feel ready for bed, come nighttime. Depending on the property, the retreats also incorporate sound healing, aromatherapy, herbal teas, and CBD treatments," says Karina Chung, Area Director of Wellness, Spa & Beauty at Rosewood Hotels & Resorts. My envy for those who've gotten to do these retreats only increased when I learned that at Rosewood Miramar Beach in Montecito, CA (you know, where Oprah and Harry and Meghan live) and Rosewood Sand Hill in Menlo Park, CA, they've installed "Sleep Suites" that include a personalized tablet to adjust the heating, cooling, and firmness of your mattress. Similar programs are popping up around the globe. At Six Senses Ibiza, a hotel and spa on Xarraca Bay in Spain, you can invest in a program called Solving the Mystery of Your Sleep with Dr. Michael Breus to create a personalized plan to "achieve the right quality and amount of shut-eye." The package starts at $4,616.
Despite my longing for such an adventure, I don't have the spare cash for a sleep vacation. So instead, I sought the insight of a renowned neurologist, author, and sleep specialist, Chris Winter, M.D., author of The Sleep Solution, who has spent the past three decades studying, lecturing, and writing on the subject when he isn't busy seeing patients.
"This has been a difficult time for so many people and it is clearly reflected in the way we are sleeping as a community — miserably," he said. Dr. Winter says that some of the most common complaints he hears are from people who have trouble falling asleep, those who wake up in the night and can't fall back to sleep, and patients who are simply tired of being tired all day.
And while sleep difficulties in American adults and children were rampant before 2020, Dr. Winter has observed "an explosion of sleep problems" in the pandemic years. He cites anxiety, disrupted schedules, and a lack of exercise as some of the perpetrators. He adds that economic pressures — for example, the need to pick up a second job — have also led to sleep deprivation.
Amy, 46, who co-owns a small business in Maine with her husband, has certainly felt that economic pressure. "Clients being verbally abusive is a many-times-daily occurrence. Staff members are exhausted, burned out, stressed by the impact COVID is having on their family lives, and much more liable to snap at each other (and at me)," she says. "My anxiety has exploded as a result, as has my insomnia."
She characterizes herself as having been a "not-great sleeper" for much of her life before (especially the sleep-deprived period when she had a newborn), but in 2020, her usual methods of talk therapy, neurofeedback, and cannabis that used to be quite helpful stopped doing the trick. She tried just about everything: over-the-counter sleep aids, CBD, chamomile, theanine, valerian, magnesium, and the occasional prescription anti-anxiety pill. Finally, a doctor gave her a prescription for a low dose of a sleeping pill, which she now takes nightly. [Note: always speak to your doctor before taking or combining any medications or supplements, as it can be dangerous or even fatal].
P., 56, is a writer who lives in Seattle. She says she's tried several sleep apps and types of edible cannabis. Her current bedtime ritual involves melatonin and the podcast Nothing Much Happens. She says, "The narrator's voice is so kind and reassuring and it works for me. Plus, she has a dog named Crumb."
Dr. Winter is skeptical of the long-term value of sleeping pills, cannabis, alcohol, and other substances for which people reach in order to combat sleeplessness. "It's a crutch that is helping a patient avoid the more difficult task of dealing with their sleep problems or insomnia head-on," he says. "It's like seeing a water stain on your ceiling and painting over it. You really have not dealt with the difficult problem of finding the leak and fixing it. You've just superficially covered it up."
He adds, "I have no problem with 'My sleep is fine, but I just like to supplement my magnesium for better sleep and health.' I have a big problem with 'I can't sleep unless I take this magnesium preparation.'"
Dr. Winter believes we need "a radical overhaul" in the way we discuss insomnia, starting with better understanding the definition. It includes two parts: first, you are not sleeping when you want, or in the manner you want. Second, you are upset or even despondent about the situation. Somebody who doesn't mind being cozy in bed listening to a podcast for two hours before drifting off? That's not someone with insomnia. That's somebody whose best life involves chilling out and learning about crime from Scam Goddess before they fall into a pleasant slumber.
Somebody who is angry, anxious, and frightened about their sudden inability to fall asleep within two hours of climbing into bed? That could be someone with insomnia. "It takes fear and anxiety to make insomnia work, to give it teeth," Dr. Winter says. "You have to fear it, dread it, be upset by it [or] maybe even make it part of who you are as a person."
While he emphasizes that this is a complex issue that can't easily be reduced to a simple solution, Dr. Winter does have a few universal tips for better sleep — that don't involve taking an expensive sleep vacation.
Be equally comfortable in your bed awake as you are asleep.
If you're going to spend a lot of time there, it may as well be as enjoyable as any hotel. Consider temperature, fabrics, firmness of mattress and pillows, and lighting. "I would say one should stay in bed as long as they are happy and comfortable," Dr. Winter says. He adds, "We often undervalue rest as a means for physical and mental recovery. Resting is great, so if sleep is not happening in the moment, as long as you are not frustrated (if you are, get out of bed), learn to enjoy resting in bed, awake. It's the secret to conquering insomnia."
Keep a detailed sleep diary.
Purchase a sleep tracking device (there are several on the market at various price points.) Every day when you wake up, write down how you think you slept. Then check the sleep tracker and write down the data on how you actually slept. You may be sleeping more than you think, and the data may thus lower your anxiety. Unsurprisingly, when anxiety is lowered, sleep improves.
Reevaluate your bedtime.
If you get in bed at 8 p.m. with the aim of waking up at 6 a.m., but you can never fall asleep until 10 p.m., perhaps you simply need to get in bed a bit later. Also, stop beating yourself up if you can't get eight hours of rest! Dr. Winter cites the Sleep Foundation and says that adults generally need between six and ten hours of sleep per night. "It is not one size — eight hours — fits all," he says.
I got into a routine earlier this year where I'd stay up all night thanks to coffee, feel like trash all day, fall asleep around 7 p.m., wake up at 1 a.m., and repeat the cycle. Eventually, my mental and physical health began to suffer.
I was able to break the cycle by lowering my caffeine intake and adding the use of a sleep mask and soothing audiobooks. I never thought I'd say it, but my sleep troubles have gotten me in the habit of exercising in the morning. And I actually enjoy that quiet time! Getting up at or before dawn and doing light yoga or a Peloton ride helps my mood, energy, and focus throughout the day. I'll probably be tired by 9 p.m., and asleep by 10:30 p.m. I'll probably wake up around 1 or 2 and eventually fall back to sleep for another hour.
Do I get that fabled eight hours of peaceful sleep at night? No, but as Dr. Winter says, everybody is different. With my current routine, I like to lay down for an hour or two in the afternoon. Usually, I can't nap, so I do some breathing exercises with the Headspace app.
Anyway, I'll continue to do my best to create my own little sleep retreat in my bedroom. And hey, insomnia and odd sleep hours have certainly given me plenty of time to keep up with friends who live in other time zones, so I suppose I ought to feel pretty lucky, even if I don't have a damn artisanal organic sound healing aromatherapy herbal tea CBD regimen ready to go.
And I'll remember what Dr. Winter told me: "Learn to listen to the cues and clues your body is giving you to find the sleep that works best for you."