How to safeguard your sleep from insomnia over COVID-19 worry

At this point in the pandemic, it may not come as a surprise that the impacts of COVID-19 have included increases in mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and substance use. Along with those issues, recent reports show that sleep has been impaired as well. The pandemic has fueled a significant increase in insomnia—with roughly 60% of people reporting an increase in problems sleeping since the start of the pandemic.

Person sitting up in bed with hand held to their head.

New findings published in the Journal of Sleep Research show that it’s not just COVID-19 disease itself (its symptoms or exposure to the virus), but worries surrounding COVID-19 have significantly contributed to insomnia.

Penn Medicine researchers led by Lily Brown, an assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry and director at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety, evaluated associations between COVID-19 exposures, COVID-19 worries, and insomnia. They found that greater severity of COVID-19-related worries was associated with elevations in insomnia symptom severity more than COVID-19-related exposure was—meaning worries about COVID-19 were a more consistent predictor of insomnia than COVID-19 exposures.

“We’ve found that worries about COVID-19 worsens insomnia, regardless of actual risk,” Brown explains. “These finding impact the care we can provide. It’s helpful because exposure to risk may or may not be modifiable—depending on one's job, for instance—but changing how one manages worries is very doable.” Future research will look into strategies to simultaneously treat insomnia and increased worries, to see if that improves outcomes.

The first tip might sound counter-initiative, but Brown actually recommends limiting time in bed. One other tip involves avoiding sleep to help improve sleep at night—skipping out on naps. Brown stresses the importance of avoiding reading or browsing on your phone or watching television due to the impact of screen light on sleep. Also, doomscrolling—continuing to read upsetting news—can take a toll on sleep. But by putting your phone down before bed, you can prevent getting wrapped up in upsetting content, which could affect your sleep.

Read more at Penn Medicine News.