DAVID GREENE, HOST:
So if you're having trouble getting to sleep these days, you're not alone. Family doctors say they are hearing from more patients who say it's just difficult to get a good night's sleep. Here's NPR's Patti Neighmond.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Arlene Rentas is a busy currency trader at a large financial institution in Charlotte, N.C. Typically, she's up at 5:30, out the door by 7, home by 8, takes a quick run before dinner and in bed around 10. She describes her sleep this way.
ARLENE RENTAS: Rather deep and rather well. Maybe get up maybe once in the night at most.
NEIGHMOND: All in all, a pretty good night's sleep. That's not the case anymore.
RENTAS: Normally, now instead of sleeping through the night, I probably get up maybe every two hours, and it's very hard for me to fall back asleep. Sometimes I'm either thinking of what the market is doing or what the virus is doing, or sometimes I just really cannot sleep.
NEIGHMOND: Dr. Gary LeRoy, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, says he sees many patients like Rentas, some in the office but most via telehealth. The issue of sleep typically comes up, he says, when discussing other health concerns.
GARY LEROY: In the context of what they're talking about, they may say something to the effect - oh, by the way, can I have something to help me sleep?
NEIGHMOND: When asked why the new trouble sleeping...
LEROY: They may mention something about having to shelter in place for the past two months or their loss of their job. Or they haven't gotten their stimulus check and they don't know how they're going to make ends meet.
NEIGHMOND: And when people are anxious, sleep tends to suffer, according to sleep specialist Dr. Douglas Kirsch, past president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Typically, it's resolved, he says, when the worrisome event, like a big test or meeting, is over. But today, he says, that's not the case.
DOUGLAS KIRSCH: The problem with the pandemic is it's been an ongoing thing. And with the news about things that have been bad or difficult or scary, that constant inflow of anxiety-provoking news has really led to people being more anxious during the day, and that also sometimes leads to anxiety at nighttime, which leads to less good sleep.
NEIGHMOND: And the anxiety could be exacerbated because activities people do, like exercise, that enable a good night's sleep are disrupted. For example, many people can't go to the gym, pool or even parks.
KIRSCH: I think if you measured people's step counts these days compared to where they were, you know, two or three months ago, I suspect those step counts are certainly down. I know mine is, personally. And so it's one of those challenges I think we all have to try and, you know, get those extra walks in.
NEIGHMOND: And when you wake up in the middle of the night with your mind racing, psychologist Sonia Ancoli-Israel with the University of California, San Diego, says there are some things you can do to feel sleepy again.
SONIA ANCOLI-ISRAEL: Start concentrating on your breathing. Take a deep breath - inhale and then exhale. And count each breath. Now what often will happen is, after you've taken one breath, your mind is going to wander again. So you have to stop yourself, bring your mind back to thinking about your breathing and start counting from one again.
NEIGHMOND: Deep breathing is relaxing and keeps the mind from wandering. After numerous stops and starts, she says, people are likely to fall asleep while counting. Then she suggests this preventive technique.
ANCOLI-ISRAEL: And this is going to sound very silly, but it works. Find 10 minutes during the day, not close to bedtime, when you can sit and worry. You turn off your phone. You don't let anyone bother you. And you just sit and concentrate on all the things that you are worried and anxious about.
NEIGHMOND: This sets up a sort of daily worry time that the brain gets accustomed to. So if you wake up in the middle of the night, it's easier to put those worries aside. Now, some lucky people are actually sleeping better these days, according to sleep specialist Kirsch. They're no longer commuting to work, or their work hours have changed.
KIRSCH: For instance, I saw a patient just yesterday whose schedule had shifted to the point where she was no longer getting up at 4:45 in the morning; she was now getting up at 6 or 6:30 in the morning, and so she was getting an extra two hours of sleep. And she told me what a difference that this had made for her, that she felt so much better during the daytime.
NEIGHMOND: Let that be a reminder, he says. Try to arrange future schedules to ensure at least seven to eight hours of sleep a night.
Patti Neighmond, NPR News.
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