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Getting Good Sleep in Bad Times

Experts share the ticket to the land of nod in a pandemic.

 Damir Spanic/Unsplash
A good night's sleep is essential to every part of our well-being, but for a troubled mind, it's not that easy.
Source: Damir Spanic/Unsplash

Sleepless nights have emerged as the latest causality of the pandemic. Experts say that insomnia has risen along with the spread of COVID-19, contributing to mental and physical health problems.

According to Donn Posner, president of Sleepwell Associates and adjunct clinical professor at Stanford University, the pandemic is "a perfect storm for sleep problems." According to Posner, anywhere from 30 to 35 percent of the population experiences acute, short-term insomnia—getting to sleep, staying asleep, or waking too early--in ordinary times. But he adds, "The actions that we're taking to protect ourselves can not only precipitate problems with sleep but lead to chronic problems with sleep."

Sleep is restorative. And if you're not getting enough, that can spell trouble. Sleep deprivation lowers your resistance to stress and harms your brain. Research shows that lack of sleep interferes with memory and learning. Your brain moves slower. You’re more forgetful. Your attention is short-circuited, and you’re grumpier. Plus, you’re more likely to nod off at your desk. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that these situations derail happiness and success. Studies also show that if you don’t get enough sleep, you’re at greater risk of heart attack or stroke, and your risk of death from heart disease more than doubles. Lack of sleep is linked to depression, impaired immune system function, weight gain, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes.

When the odds are stacked against us in troubled times, brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor, author of My Stroke of Insight, says that sleep is the most important remedy at our disposal:

"Arianna Huffington and I are the two loudest advocates on the planet. When it comes to the brain, sleep is everything. Every ability you have, you have brain cells that are communicating. When you’re walking, you have brain cells communicating with the muscles to move. The cells in your brain are constantly working. They eat and they create waste, so sleep is the optimal time for the waste to be cleared out between the cells so they can actually function. I compare it to when the garbage collectors go on strike, we know how congested the streets become. That’s exactly the same thing going on with the brain cells. If you wake up to an alarm before your system is ready to wake up, you have cut part of a cycle of sleep off that your brain wanted."

Creative Solutions for Getting More Shut-Eye

And speaking of Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of Thrive Global, she and Don Katz, founder and executive chairman of Audible, joined forces this week to create a powerful sleep solution at a time when sleep is most crucial and address the sleepless epidemic and the uptick in nightmares associated with the pandemic.

According to the duo, “In extraordinary times of uncertainty, anxiety, and stress, getting the sleep we need is more important than ever. Scientific study after scientific study shows that sleep is the foundation of both a strong immune system and psychological resilience—the very things we need to navigate this crisis. And yet, with the COVID-19 crisis, a good night’s sleep has never been harder to come by.”

Audible and Thrive Global have come together, along with the strong voices of Diddy, Nick Jonas and others, to introduce a collection of free audio experiences—from guided meditations and bedtime stories to sound baths and Microsteps for better sleep—designed to help you get some rest during this difficult time. According to Huffington and Katz, “Beyond helping people navigate an historically anxious time, we’ll also be sustaining and creating restaurant jobs in Newark and providing tens of thousands of meals that will be delivered to Newark’s most vulnerable citizens who cannot or should not go out for food—as well as to the city’s frontline healthcare workers.”

The Road to the Land of Nod

Taylor recommends sleeping until your brain wants to get up: "If you’re not sleeping until your brain wakes you up to get up, then you’re not getting enough sleep. One of the worst things we can do is have an alarm. A typical sleep cycle runs between 90 and 110 minutes, so if you’re forcing yourself to get up in the middle of a cycle, then you just blew a whole cycle of rejuvenation for your brain. Sleep is about rejuvenating the brain."

Why fight sleep? If your mind is still wide awake long after your body has called it quits, there are steps you can take to get to the land of nod. Before you hit the hay, try some of these changes to your routines so you can catch more Zs:

  1. Go to bed at the same time and get up at the same time to keep your body regulated and to make it easier to fall asleep.
  2. Make sure your bedroom is cozy, inviting, and well-ventilated. Before you start counting sheep, block out any light to create a dark room.
  3. Use your bed exclusively for sleep and sex, not for arguing or watching disturbing television news stories or movies, and go to bed only when you’re sleepy. When you think of your bed and sleeping, you want to have positive associations.
  4. Avoid bedtime when your mind is racing with worry. Try not to overstimulate your brain by overthinking a project or trying to solve a problem at work. Wait until you’ve calmed your mind with meditation or a cup of chamomile tea before you tuck yourself in.
  5. Avoid working on electronic devices an hour before going to bed or while you’re in bed. A National Sleep Foundation study showed that the glow from electronic devices suppresses melatonin and interferes with falling and staying asleep.
  6. Avoid late-night meals. Eating late meals, especially heavy foods that are hard to digest, can keep you from nodding off.
  7. Reduce alcohol intake. If you drink alcohol, you might have noticed that it acts as a sedative at first, but when you consume too much, you might awaken in the middle of the night unable to go back to sleep. Prolonged dependency and addiction to alcohol disrupts sleep and contributes to insomnia.
  8. Limit nicotine and caffeine. Lighting up and gulping down too much java, tea, or energy drinks can keep you up at night. Stimulants reeve up your body when your goal is to calm it down.
  9. Put a time limit on naps. Napping for too long during the day can interfere with your nighttime sleep. If you do take naps, limit them to thirty minutes and take them earlier than later in the day.
  10. Exercise early in the day or three to four hours before bedtime so you can fall asleep faster and sleep through the night. Working out too close to bedtime can re-energize and give you a second wind, making you feel as if you’re ready to embrace the day.

Each night before bedtime, take a chill pill (such as meditation, listening to soft music, or reading an inspirational book) instead of a sleeping pill to relax your mind. Consider taking advantage of the Huffington-Katz free audio experiences, designed for the purposes of better sleep. As you put your mind at ease, your sleep—in the words of William Shakespeare—will mend your raveled sleeve. You’ll saw more logs than a lumberjack, take your worries off life support, and give your life the oxygen it needs to thrive.


Arand, DL. (2010). Hyperarousal and insomnia: State of the science. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 14 (1): 9-15.

Conor J Wild, Emily S Nichols, Michael E Battista, Bobby Stojanoski, Adrian M Owen. (2018). Dissociable effects of self-reported daily sleep duration on high-level cognitive abilities. Sleep, DOI: 10.1093/sleep/zsy182

Grandner, MA. et al. (2016). Sleep disparity, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic position. Sleep Med. 2016 Feb; 18: 7–18. Published online 2015 Feb 28. doi: 10.1016/j.sleep.2015.01.020

Simon, C. (2020). Insomnia in a pandemic. The Harvard Gazette.

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