facebook-pixel

Have the coronavirus and earthquakes wrecked your sleep? Rest easy. You’re not alone. And here’s what can help you nod off.

Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing free access to critical stories about the coronavirus. Sign up for our Top Stories newsletter, sent to your inbox every weekday morning. To support journalism like this, please donate or become a subscriber.

Adam Sherman sleeps eight or nine hours a night, and then takes naps during the morning and evening.

It’s adding to up to 14 hours of sleep a day.

“I’m tired all day,” Sherman said, “and just feel exhausted.”

The 47-year-old Salt Lake City resident didn’t used to sleep so much, but the coronavirus pandemic has rattled his routines.

Those interrupted patterns are causing the opposite problem in many people. They are suffering from insomnia, said Kelly Baron, an associate professor in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine and director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Utah.

Baron says she and colleagues have received funding for a pilot project to survey Utahns on how the pandemic is impacting their sleep. She’s recruiting 200 adults to participate.

Sleep study starting

A University of Utah study is enrolling men and women for a study to help understand the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on sleep. There are no in-person visits and participants are compensated for their time. If you’re an adult living in Utah and want to participate visit https://bit.ly/3c7ofq5 to complete an online screening. For more information, call 801-585-1123 or email sleeplab@utah.edu.

“Anecdotally,” Baron said, “I’ve seen a lot of my patients struggling with sleep right now for a variety of issues.”

Dr. Kevin Walker, medical director of Intermountain Sleep Disorder Center, said he has talked to a few patients recently experiencing increased anxiety.

Fears about their health, family and finances can keep them up late at night. They worry about themselves or loved ones getting sick. They may have lost their job or fret that they will lose that paycheck.

“I just think being at home all the time, even with your loved ones, you’re kind of all cooped up together,” Walker said. “That can get stressful.”

If the pandemic didn’t provide enough stress, residents of the Wasatch Front also rode out a magnitude 5.7 earthquake on March 18 and weeks of heart-stopping aftershocks.

(Courtesy photo) Kelly Baron, associate professor in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine and director of Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Utah.

Experts recommend that adults sleep for seven to nine hours a night. Heightened anxiety, Baron said, can make that difficult.

“You feel irritated, more depressed,” she said, “when you haven’t slept enough.”

Yes, stress can disrupt patterns, Walker noted, but disrupted patterns can cause stress.

Adults and children, who are home more because of the pandemic, may not have to wake at the time they used to commute to work or get to school. That may mean staying up later and waking later and interrupting sleep rhythms.

In addition, parents might be spending more time trying to educate their children. Some people might also be eating more food or drinking more alcohol while at home.

Those changes could cause someone to be tired during the day and try to compensate with naps or caffeine.

“Our bodies like routine,” Walker said. “I think we do much better typically when we keep some consistency.”

Once upon a time, he said, sleep specialists focused on treating underlying issues causing insomnia. Then it was discovered that once insomnia starts, it can become a self-perpetuating problem.

“It can kind of take on a life of its own,” he said, “even if it was caused by other things to start.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sign in the window of a home in Millcreek, Friday April 17, 2020

So what should pandemic-weary and earthquake-wary people do?

Baron and Walker recommend sticking to a routine. Wake and go to bed at the same time each day. Shut off or stow away electronics and digital devices an hour before bedtime. Try to spend that time doing something relaxing.

Walker also emphasizes training yourself to view the bed as a site reserved for sleep or sex. Do not work in bed, he said; even reading in bed might reinforce that the mattress is for something other than rest.

Exercising and eating meals at the same time each day is important for sleep, too, Walker said.

There’s one thing people might have noticed recently that isn’t necessarily a problem, Baron said, but might have them wondering what’s happening. She’s heard patients report they are having more vivid dreams.

Even Baron falls into that category. She recalled a recent dream in which a man was riding an enormous grizzly. The bear knocked over her children. The kids were unconscious and she feared the bear would eat them. But she woke first.

“It was obviously a dream about control and protection,” she said.

Baron is among the multitudes who have been working from home during the pandemic. People who no longer have to commute might be sleeping more. Since REM sleep most often occurs in the early morning hours, some people might be having such dreams because they are catching up on sleep.

That’s a good thing, she said.

The pandemic “clearly has a large impact on people’s behaviors,” Baron said, “and there could be some positive and negative aspects.”

As for Sherman, he works full time as a safety officer in the Utah National Guard and has been doing his job from home, where he lives alone. He said he tried to improve his sleep habits by drinking less alcohol and moving his office out of the bedroom and into the kitchen.

Now he finds himself snacking more during the day, and he’s still sleeping a lot.

“I’m an extrovert, which makes teleworking difficult and stressful because I’m alone all day,” Sherman said. “So it has been difficult for me to make large or meaningful changes in my routine. So I find myself having accepted what’s going on, and I’m just waiting for life to turn back to normal.”

Walker tries to treat patients with chronic sleep problems with cognitive and behavioral therapies. If that doesn’t work, medication might be an option.

For people whose sleep might be arrested by anxiety, Walker suggests they limit the time they consume news about COVID-19.

“It’s good to be informed,” he said, “but it’s good for my patients to set a time limit.”


Return to Story