‘Corona-insomnia’: what is it and what can I do about it?

December 2020, we are still in partial lockdown during the second wave of COVID19. The previous months I have given many webinars on sleep and each time I realized how many ingredients of the current situation form the ideal recipe for the development of insomnia. At the same time I notice how many people are utterly surprised and taken aback by the fact that they suddenly sleep worse. They do not understand why these sleep complaints appear. This situation of uncertainty and even anxiety about temporary symptoms we do not understand or control, is like oil on fire which can easily give rise to chronic insomnia. This is why I decided to take up my pen again and hopefully give some clarity to this uncertain situation, to reassure every one of you and hopefully share some advice that might improve the symptoms of this ‘corona-insomnia’.

Because of teleworking, we work all the time.
Teleworking has become the norm during (partial) lockdown in Belgium. Initially we also saw, and were excited, about the advantages of working from home: No traffic jams, sleeping a bit longer in the mornings, less ‘morning stress’ as a family because we were not going ‘to be late at the office’. There were also advantages with regard to the balance between private and professional life: You could easily do some quick chores or grocery shopping during your break. We saw it as a situation that improved our flexibility and autonomy.

However, the evolution we see is that were are continuously busy and trying to be as efficient as possible. How many times have I heard a client during an online session say: ‘Sorry I was five minutes late, I just came out of another meeting’. Pre-Corona times, you would have left the meeting and then drive for half an hour (or less) or walk to my office. This moment of ‘doing nothing’ is so important to deconnect, relax and prepare for the next activity. This necessary window of ‘rest-and-digest’ mode of your nervous system, is lacking completely! We are trying go from one activity to the next, as seamlessly as possible, and we even feel guilty if we take a break or just sit down and ‘do nothing’. And this is a very problematic situation, because our nervous system is just not build to sustain this mode on the long term! Staying in 6th gear all day long makes the mechanism go rusty (literally!) and it becomes more difficult to shift to a lower gear. When we finally put down our work or close our laptops in the evening, we notice that we find it very hard to shake of this restlessness, especially when we try to relax. If you feel like it is becoming harder and harder to really relax on a mental level, it might already be a sign of a chronically activated stress system and a rigidity has set in (a phenomenon called conditioned arousal). Don’t wait any longer a start rescheduling your calendar, not to make it even more efficient, but rather to plan those necessary breaks and pauses in your day. Your efficiency will not improve by staying busy all the time, on the contrary! It’s time for some ‘inefficient time’.

We are not going outside and deprive our internal clock of its necessary (daylight) stimulation.

Due to teleworking we just stay inside all the time. We go from our bed, to the breakfast table and afterwards straight to our desk or home office. Around noon we probably step into the kitchen for a quick sandwich and return back to our home office (or it might just be the same spot, as a lot of people don’t even have a separate home office!). The problem lies in the fact that we have an internal clock in our brain that programs everything in our body, including our wake and sleep periods. This internal clock is dependent on light stimulation to work properly, which is missing at the moment! This can have a huge impact on all our bodily functions during the day: we feel less vigilant, concentrated and more tired. Moreover, it also influences our sleep: we can find it more difficult to fall asleep, wake up more frequently and/or still be very tired in the morning. A very odd situation to feel so tired and sleep that bad at the same time, but if you take into account how the internal clock works, it is actually very normal. It’s just craving for a little bit of daylight!
In order to avoid these consequences, take some time to go outside! Start your day with a short walk, before you open op your laptop or computer. Do the same during your lunch break if possible. Be aware that you don’t need to do every call as a video call. Some meetings can be done outside while walking.

We are missing the daily distractions and variations.

Due to the lockdown restriction, most of the hobby’s, creative, sportive or social activities are cancelled. Those activities normally give our nervous system the necessary break and distract us from our daily stressors. As a consequence, our stress system is constantly activated and again it becomes difficult to wind down or relax. We lack some distraction, lightheartedness and fun. This particular situation, were people cut in their daily social distraction, is also a known mechanism of chronic insomnia. A chronically activated stress system, signals the need to’ stay vigilant and alert’, which is incompatible with sleep. As a consequence, we can experience sleep onset difficulties and wake up more frequently. The cause is not a problematic sleep system, but rather a rigid stress system, that is not allowing your sleep system to do it’s job.
Bring some variation in your day, find some distraction from daily stressors, take some me-time, go for a run or walk (with friends), listen to some music or read a good book.

Let’s hang in there, together, but take care of ourselves and each other. What do you need to shift gear and relax, where do you find some quiet time or lightheartedness?

Good luck!

Aisha Cortoos
Clinical psychologist - Psychotherapist - PhD in psychology
Sleep/stress expert