Compulsively worrying about sleeping is one of the primary causes of insomnia.
People with sleep problems tend to worry about being able to go to sleep which in turn makes it harder for them to go to sleep. Harvard professor Daniel Wegner calls this “the ironic process of mental control.” People become increasingly anxious as they constantly monitor progress toward a specific goal – in this case, going to sleep. They get caught up in the second-by-second process of self-assessment. As the need for sleep becomes more urgent, it becomes more elusive.
Worry and anxiety are evolutionary enemies of sleep. As Jennifer Martin, professor of medicine at UCLA has said, “It would have been an unfortunate mistake of evolution if we were sleepy when there was a tiger outside of our cave.” When humans are faced with a threat, the initial stress reaction is to not sleep so we can deal with the threat.
For many people, the global pandemic is an existential threat not unlike the tiger outside our cave. Worrying about health, finances, or friends & family impacts the ability to sleep. Pharmacy benefits manager Express Scripts reported the number of prescriptions for sleep disorders increased 15% in the first month of the pandemic. In addition, according to a study from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 36% of Americans have reported difficulty sleeping due to stress about the pandemic.
Multiple months of poor sleep is considered insomnia. Sleep problems are so widespread that UC Davis Health declared “the coronavirus may be causing a second pandemic of insomnia.” I guess I need to add coronasomnia to my list of new words spurred by the COVID lockdown.
There’s lots of advice on what to do if you are suffering from insomnia. According to Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, sleeping well boils down to two factors: comfort and release. For the former, when the body is comfortable enough, the brain is essentially tricked into forgetting the rest of the body is attached to it. For the latter, the person has to ignore their immediate surroundings and daily concerns. This release works best when it happens soon after the person puts their head on a pillow and tries to sleep.
In other words, if you stop worrying about things – including sleeping, you’re more likely to sleep.