Experts treat insomnia, anxiety caused by COVID-19


Image: Ben Blennerhassett, Unsplash

By Ri’an Jackson
Capital News Service

Sachi Tanaka says after having COVID-19 for three weeks, she experienced insomnia in a way that she never had.

“At that time, I had gotten myself into a good routine of falling asleep around 10 p.m. and waking up early,” said the 24-year-old Texas woman. “And then, all of the sudden, it was like I couldn’t fall asleep until 6 or 7 in the morning.”

Her insomnia was a nagging feeling. She tossed and turned in bed, feeling like she was at the brink of sleep, but would be interrupted by her thoughts.

Tanaka isn’t alone. COVID-19 has affected many people’s sleep, whether they’ve had the virus or not. Sleep neurologists call it “COVID-somnia,” a phenomenon where people have trouble sleeping because of the virus. And its effects can last even after the pandemic ends.

Coronavirus upended our lifestyles. Morning commutes were replaced with teleworking, which may mean less physical activity and exposure to sunlight and more screen time, said Dr. George Zureikat, a sleep medicine specialist and director of Mid Michigan Sleep Center in Grand Blanc.

That can ruin sleep by disrupting the circadian rhythm — the powerhouse of our sleep-wake cycle.

Stress induced by COVID can also result in insomnia, said Zureikat, who has seen a surge of insomnia cases since the pandemic.

COVID-19 is unlike anything many people have experienced, he said. Insomniacs may lose sleep worrying about unemployment or about contracting the virus. Some people feel trapped during lockdowns and are constantly reading news articles about overcrowded hospitals and rising death numbers.

A recent study by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine found 2.77 million Google searches for “insomnia” in the first five months of 2020 — a 58% increase compared with the same months from the previous three years. Most of those queries happened between midnight and 5 a.m., suggesting people were searching while unable to fall asleep.

Difficulties like trouble falling and staying asleep or waking up too early rose from 36% before the pandemic to 51% during it, Rebecca Robillard, a University of Ottawa professor who leads clinical sleep research at the Royal’s Institute of Mental Health Research, said in a Medpage Today article.

“If your (circadian) rhythms are thrown off, that also throws off your sleep at night time,” said Dr. Christopher Morgan, the medical director at Mercy Health Saint Mary’s Sleep Center in Grand Rapids. “Your melatonin may not be producing the right amounts at the right time, which is part of your internal rhythms in your body.”

Melatonin is the hormone that your brain produces in response to darkness. It helps time your circadian rhythms and sleep.

Humans are social animals,” said Dr. Lila Massoumi, a professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University and chair of the American Psychiatric Association Caucus on Complementary & Integrative Psychiatry. 

“We draw both strength and calm from our fellow humans. Ripping that social support away by telling us to self-isolate removes that source of strength and calm,” she said.

Unsurprisingly, those who contract the virus may also stress about their health.

Morgan said those who struggle with chronic insomnia, or insomnia experienced at least three nights a week for at least a month, may develop bad habits that can be difficult to shake.

“You have an acute stressor, which is COVID, and you become an insomniac,” he said. “And then let’s say I still haven’t gotten a job in six months. Now, I’m sitting in bed for 10 hours a day just thinking about how terrible things are in my life, and I have insomnia.

“So, now I start watching TV in bed because I’m awake during the night time, and I start drinking pop in the middle of the night, and I start laying in bed even longer because I think I’m not getting enough sleep. So, all these maladaptive behaviors develop.”

What’s worse, according to Mayo Clinic researchers, those who’ve had chronic insomnia report a lower quality of life than those who sleep well. Chronic insomnia may lead to anxiety or depression, slowed reaction time while driving and increased risk of long-term diseases such as heart disease.

Many professionals treat patients with cognitive behavioral therapy. It works by identifying and replacing thoughts and behaviors that create sleep problems with ones that promote healthy sleep.

“It’s just a matter of just tweaking certain habits and changing certain things,” said Rachel Freedland, a clinical social worker at Bright Spot Therapy, a counseling clinic in Farmington Hills. “If there are other mental health needs, for example, if a person already has anxiety or depression, we address those as well.”

After assessing a patient’s sleeping habits with sleep diaries and questionnaires, Freedland, who is certified in cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, and her clients design a program that helps them sleep and wake up when they want.

Yoga and mindfulness, a type of meditation where you focus on being aware of what you’re feeling and sensing at the moment, can release feel-good hormones that alleviate anxiety and promote healthier sleep, according to Asha Ravindran, a clinical team lead at St. Mary Mercy hospital in Livonia.

“If you don’t sleep, if you’re anxious, you’re out of sync with your body,” said Ravindran, who owns Stepping Stones Wellness Center in Plymouth and conducts virtual yoga and meditation sessions with her patients.

She advises clients to create a private space where they can journal, practice yoga and meditate. This space can be as simple as the foot of the bed.

The key is to be present in the moment, Ravindran said. From yoga poses to breathing exercises, you can de-stress with strategies that help focus on the present without worrying about the past or future.

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