Exercising regularly, avoiding late-night meals and reducing screen time are helping some D.C. area residents get better sleep.
Kevin Ford's first night of intense sleep troubles came in early June.
It was the night of what's been called the "Swann Street siege," when D.C. resident Rahul Dubey sheltered dozens of protesters in his Northwest home during a clash outside with police. Ford, a 26-year-old H Street NE resident, recalls spending the night "doom-scrolling" on Twitter, where he watched videos of the Swann Street protesters being kettled and arrested, and read harrowing accounts of the chaotic incident. He says he spent the entire night staring at his phone.
Since then, Ford hasn't slept well. Once every two weeks or so, he finds himself wide awake late at night — tired mentally, perhaps, but not enough to fall asleep. "The fact that I'm even noticing my sleep really started during the pandemic," he says.
Many Washingtonians like Ford are struggling to get a good night's rest, and even when they do, some describe having bizarre nightmares. For months, neurologists around the world have been studying how the pandemic has triggered a surge in reports of tossing and turning at night, in what some have coined "COVID-somnia."
As researchers at a Harvard University forum noted in April, chronic insomnia is linked with a "spectrum of serious health problems, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension." The physical stress of the pandemic is also manifesting itself in other ways, according to medical professionals: "shock hair loss," flare-ups of skin conditions, stomach issues, teeth grinding and fatigue have all been correlated with the public health emergency.
Concerns about poor sleep led Stephanie Archuleta, a graphic designer from Ashton, Maryland, to change her routines. She says she was initially happy to drop her commute to D.C. when she began teleworking in March. "I was painting, reading books, watching TV," says Archuleta, who, before the pandemic, typically got about six hours of sleep each night.
But as COVID-19 spread throughout the area and as social injustice filled the news, her sleeping hours fell by half. She got Zoom fatigue from constantly sitting at her desk and, by late May, it was taking her two hours to fall asleep. "I was used to running for trains, walking to work, meeting friends and all of that was put on hold," Archuleta, who is 39 and stopped drinking caffeine years ago, says.
To get back on track with sleeping, she started exercising four times a week — lifting weights, doing Barre and running in Rock Creek Park. Her new exercise routine, along with regular multivitamins, brought her back to six or seven hours of deep sleep a night. "Next, I want to try reading before bed" to wind down her mind, says Archuleta.
Vivek Jain, the director of George Washington University's Sleep Disorders Center, says people struggling with insomnia shouldn't focus too heavily on getting a specific number of sleeping hours or sticking to a perfect routine. He warns against obsessing about sleep because it can drive someone's stress levels higher.
Instead, he recommends making relatively small lifestyle changes to calm one's mind and get better sleep, including rigorous exercise, not eating two hours before bed and reducing screen time. Insomnia isn't just a problem at night, Jain says — it's a 24-hour issue that stems from constantly being on high alert.
"The factor you can't control is the pandemic," he explains. "But things that can be in your control as an individual, those things you should control."
To relax and rest, some have suggested turning to meditation apps like Headspace and podcasts like "Nothing Much Happens," which offer bedtime stories for adults. Others have recommended alternatives — CBD products, whiskey, weed — but Jain strongly advises against using drugs or alcohol to fall asleep. (Since the coronavirus hit the area, local liquor sales have skyrocketed.)
"What we tell patients is, the last thing you need is a sleeping pill," he says. Some sleep experts, including Jain, encourage people to do cognitive behavioral therapy, which can help alleviate the root stressors behind sleeping disorders.
Even before the pandemic, Kensington, Maryland, resident Debra Tropp dealt with sleep apnea, a chronic disorder, and was accustomed to falling asleep under difficult circumstances. After becoming sick with COVID-19 in May, though, she's generally found it harder to go to sleep and stay asleep.
Still, Tropp says she recently discovered a temporary sleeping aid: listening to public radio. "It's kind of droning in the background, and if it's something interesting, I'll pay attention," she says. "But it's usually enough to put me to sleep. ... I need something to focus on, but something that's not disturbing."