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Sleep heals – why is it so elusive lately?

Are you having trouble sleeping? Falling asleep but waking up shortly after hitting the sack?

How about sleeping weird hours? Are your dreams more vibrant and detailed?

You’re not alone. Sleep issues, including insomnia, have always been part of the healthcare landscape, but lately, the problem with getting a good night’s rest is literally off the charts.

And it appears the COVID-19 pandemic is to blame, bringing out the worst in those just trying to sleep.

Research shows the pandemic has certainly disrupted normal sleeping patterns since its arrival, leading to increases in stress, anxiety and depression, and leading to many Canadians looking for help in everything from relaxation apps to over-the-counter and prescription medications – anything for a few good ZZZZs.

Some see it as an annoying distraction, while others, especially in the medical community, are worried we’re looking at the potential for long-term mental health issues.

In a recent study lead by researcher Dr. Rebecca Robillard, professor at The Royal and the University of Ottawa ( ), the pandemic is causing quite the uproar: “The pandemic is having a diverse impact on people’s sleep, with clinically meaningful sleep difficulties having undergone a sharp increase,” said Robillard on the university’s website. “We found that half of our participants showed signs of serious sleep problems during the pandemic.”

Specifically, said Robillard, principle investigator for the study, the researchers identified three different profiles of sleep changes: those who sleep more; those whose sleep schedule was pushed to later bed and wake-up times; and those who are getting less sleep than they did before the pandemic.

Robillard, co-director of the sleep laboratory of the School of Psychology at U of Ottawa, and head scientist in the sleep research unit at The Royal Institute of Mental Health Research, said that active changes people made on sleep-related behaviours during the pandemic “not only affected sleep quality and quantity, but also affected their psychological response to this unprecedented situation,” that not only included increased insomnia but worsening symptoms of “stress, anxiety and depression.”

The National Library of Medicine reports that sleep disorders affect 40% of Canadians, with the main culprit being insomnia. And yes, the pandemic is disrupting sleeping habits across Canada at an alarming rate, and can pose serious health risks (Ontario has the highest numbers of those suffering sleep-related issues).

The government of Canada website ( ) reports one in four of us are not getting enough sleep. And it’s not just getting to sleep, but staying asleep and waking up refreshed. Lack of sleep causes chronic stress and poor mental health and can contribute to a wide variety of medical issues, including obesity.

Sleep disorders can affect every age group, with middle-aged women suffering some of the highest rates. In fact, “new sleep difficulties seem to be disproportionately affecting women, those with families and family responsibilities, the employed, and individuals with chronic illnesses,” notes Robillard.

Similar research shows these numbers have spiked due to the pandemic.

It’s not just sleep that’s being impacted – it’s our dreams, too. According to clinical psychologist and sleep specialist Dr. Michael Breus in an earlier interview, pandemic dreams and nightmares are weirder, more intense, with isolation and quarantining major culprits in this.

There are explanations for “quaran-dreaming” – the crazy dreams many are experiencing, said Breus, of : “You are not alone with this dream pandemic as recent research has revealed (an) increase in vivid dreams since the quarantine began – with increases in nightmares.”

Why is this happening? “Dreams are a way for our brains to process emotionally charged memories,” he said. “This is one of the most well-studied, commonly held theories about dreaming – that our brains employ dreams to work through emotionally difficult and stressful experiences, to reduce their psychological load and make them less disruptive to daily functioning.”

What are the obvious offenders? “Social isolation, massive upheaval to daily routines, fears about health, finances and deep uncertainty about what lies ahead,” Breus said in an earlier interview. Add to that everything from boredom, overwork, stress, anxiety – describing pretty much how most of us are living lately – and you have a recipe for a sleep crisis.

What can be read into people’s sleep patterns during the pandemic? “The large scale of sleep changes in response to the pandemic highlights the need for more accessible, yet tailored interventions to address sleep problems,” says Dr. Robillard on the university’s website. “Sleep and mental health issues are something to be expected with the current circumstances, but we never expected to see it hit this level. It is important to intervene to address the unique phenomenon that we are facing right now.”

What are some ways people can improve their sleep, even during the pandemic? “Some simple habits can help you to get  a good night sleep,” says Robillard, offering the following tips:

  1. Getting up at the same time each morning (even on weekends). Even if you fall asleep very late, you should still get up at the same time each morning.
  2. Develop relaxing pre-sleep rituals such as reading.
  3. Avoid caffeine and alcohol within six hours of bedtime, and don’t smoke at bedtime.
  4. Exercise regularly. Get vigorous exercise such as jogging either in the morning or afternoon. Get mild exercise, such as walking, two to three hours before bedtime.

Journaling may also help, as well as talking it out with someone you trust, or seeking help from your doctor. .

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2021

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