In the year we’ve been living with COVID, many of our habits have been severely disrupted. People who struggled with getting enough restful sleep before the pandemic are now seeking help from practitioners like Dr. Harris, a clinical psychologist who specializes in sleep, depression and anxiety issues. She responds to our questions below.
Q: Many people report that their sleep has been disrupted during COVID. Why is that?
A: I’ve seen greater sleep disruption in my patients as the months in social isolation have progressed. Increases in stress, anxiety and job disruption are all obvious causes for sleep problems. For many patients, their sleep issues began once they contracted COVID- 19, suggesting insomnia may be a lingering symptom. Interestingly, some patients are actually sleeping better now, because life is simply just not as busy for them.
Q: What other sleep-related symptoms have you seen during COVID ?
A: I see more undiagnosed sleep apnea, the temporary cessation of breathing during sleep that can cause people to choke or gasp for air. Many people have gained weight from eating more and being less active. With weight gain comes more snoring and higher rates of sleep apnea, leading to poorer sleep quality. Research has linked poorer sleep quality with impairment in cognition and poorer memory.
Q: Why does getting 7-8 hours of quality sleep make such a difference for the brain?
A: A full night’s sleep plays a major role in the consolidation of memory and learning. When you’re asleep, your brain goes through various sleep stages that process the day’s information and form memories. Recent research shows that without enough deep stage sleep, a protein called tau builds up inside the brain in toxic tangles commonly seen in Alzheimer’s disease. In essence, deep sleep is like your brain’s washing machine, helping to clean the brain of tau.
Q: If people are not sleeping well, what can they do?
A: You might consider Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) as a nonpharmacologic technique considered the gold standard for insomnia treatment as it is as effective as medication in many cases. CBT-I can be delivered in person, via telehealth or on various apps (CBT-I Coach, Sleepio, Cleveland Clinic, for example). If CBT-I isn’t enough, or if you snore, have excessive daytime sleepiness or engage in other movements in your sleep, consider talking with a sleep specialist.
To find a practitioner for sleep and sleep related issues, visit: https://www.behavioralsleep.org/
UPenn CBT for Insomnia provider directory: https://cbti.directory/
for sleep centers: http://sleepeducation.org/find-a-facility
and other sleep specialists: https://www.aapmd.org and click on “For Patients” to find a practitioner.
Shelby Harris Psy.D is the author of The Women’s Guide to Overcoming Insomnia: Get a Good Night’s Sleep without Relying on Medication. She has a private practice in White Plains, NY.
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