Can’t sleep? You might have Coronasomnia

The pandemic is causing restless nights for lots of us. Ciara McDonnell goes in search of the solution to a good night's sleep
Can’t sleep? You might have Coronasomnia

Scroll through twitter at 3 am and you’ll find us there. The No Sleep Club – die-hard insomniacs – who have long discarded professional advice about sleep hygiene and no screens before bed. Dm’s fly as we swap complaints and queries about herbal remedies, anxiety and more recently, the state of the pandemic.

I have always had trouble staying asleep. I nod off without a problem but wake in the very early hours as though I have been shot with adrenalin. My solution these days is to give into the night, make a hot drink and settle down with something that feels like marshmallow for my brain – right now it’s Real Housewives Of New Jersey.

Since my children were born, I have looked at this time as my own secret day-within-a-day, where nobody needs me, where there are no demands on my time. Sure, I often feel like I am at the mercy of an extremely drawn-out experiment on sleep deprivation, but it’s how you frame it, you know?

Since the arrival of Covid-19, there are lots of new members of the No Sleep Club, so many that medical experts have given pandemic insomnia a catchy name – Coronasomnia. Dr Gillian Moore Groarke is a consultant psychologist at the Bon Secours Hospital in Cork, and she tells me that pandemic insomnia is a condition that she is seeing in her clinic. 

“I work a lot in the hospital with patients who have sleep difficulties and there is a difference in terms of what we are seeing. What I've noticed that people are coming in with a huge increase in their anxiety, and it is right across the spectrum of all ages. 

There is a link between the anxiety and insomnia people are experiencing. 

Gillian says that the level of exposure we have to bad news is compounding our stress levels, and having a direct effect on our sleep. “What is happening is that anxiety is being played over and over and over in people's heads and that really is feeding into a higher level of alertness,” she points out. “People are very, very stressed, and there is a lot of uncertainty out there. The worry this causes is very significant.” 

So what are the Coronasomiacs to do, I ask, pressing Dr Moore Groarke for the solution to all of this sleeplessness. And then she says the two words that make me despair: sleep hygiene. “More than ever, what needs to be done, is to create a routine,” she says in a tone so reassuring that I believe her. “That means, learning to relax, eliminating screen-time two hours before bed, and I would like to leave it at the six o'clock news. Don't be watching the same news again at nine, because it's reinforcing the negative thought patterns.” 

Motty Varghese
Motty Varghese

Motty Varghese is a Sleep Physiologist and Behavioral Sleep Therapist at Sleep Therapy Clinic and treats patients enduring both intermittent and chronic insomnia. He says that if you take longer than half an hour to go to sleep at night, or more than half an hour to go back sleep if you waken, or wake earlier than you intended to for more than three nights a week over the course of a month, then you have insomnia.

I tell him that during my extensive research of my own sleeplessness, I think that I wake up in ‘fight or flight mode’ and fair play to him, he agrees with me. “Once we start to lose sleep, we get anxious about sleep. So typically, the person will be worrying if they will fall asleep that night, and it is that anxiety that will make us alert or keep us awake.” 

He suggests that I am in a hypervigilant state when I go to bed every night because I am anticipating waking in the middle of the night. 

This means that when we are going to bed at night, we are battle-ready, and that's something that we don't want. 

The solution, suggests Motty, is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. 

“This is a cycle that we need to break. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is used primarily to optimise our behaviours associated with sleep, and also to alleviate our anxieties associated with it.” 

Gillian Moore Groarke suggests a book to her clients who are suffering right now.“It’s called Change The Way You Feel By Changing The Way You Think and it's published by Routledge. We are finding ourselves engaging in catastrophised thinking, and trying to predict the future. When we think like this, we turn to destructive thinking styles which feed into depression, which in turn feeds into anxiety and the two of those combined feed into poor sleeping patterns.” 

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to insomnia, says the psychologist, but creating a routine around sleep is the safest bet. “Allow some downtime for three or four hours before you go asleep and incorporate regular exercise and a good diet - all of the things that we can see in the literature about sleep hygiene apply now more than ever.” A pharmacological approach should always be the last resort, she cautions. “Don't take any sleep aid without discussing it with your GP first; never self-prescribe because there may be contraindications with a medication you already take”.

The key to restful sleep, says the expert, is a calm body and mind. It’s time for us all to relax. “Utilise relaxation techniques - mindfulness, meditation - they will go a long way. It might take a little bit longer to sort the problem, but it will be a healthier approach in the longer term."

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