Can’t Sleep?

Insomnia book cover by Marina BenjaminOne fun side effect of quarantine is a sleep schedule that slowly, seemingly on its own, creeps off axis, until suddenly it’s 3 am and you decide now is a good time to listen to all your favourite songs from high school. What makes it weirder is that, for a lot of us, we are still getting up in the morning and clocking in for a workdayI, for one, am not sleeping until noon to make up for my late nights. So why is this insomnia happening, and what can we do about it?  

I’m someone who deals with a precarious sleep schedule on a good day; some nights, for no reason at all, I’ll be wide awake until 5 am, only finally passing out once the sun comes up. Is it caused by anxiety? A lack of exercise? Too much caffeine? Any answer is plausible, and it’s never obvious. But being locked inside for the past few months, I’ve been much more confident attributing these sleepless flare-ups to the low-grade anxiety that thrums through us at every point in the day. Just because we might not actively feel the anxiety (although, sometimes, we do) doesn’t mean it’s not always there. You might notice it manifesting in weird, unsettling dreams, which appears to be a common trend right now (mine have tended to be about being locked out of my apartment, my car being towed, being late for work because the Starbucks barista had to cook a whole chicken for me…). There is also the strange sense that time is both speeding by and not moving at all—another scientifically documented byproduct of quarantine. Without distinct markers for the passage of days, our brains have trouble differentiating them. Since all our days look the same, it just feels like one looooong day. Next thing you know, a whole month has gone by.

Because of this, the best thing to do for yourself is create a routine. This is something I struggle with a lot; normally I’m too busy to worry about a routine (besides, like, going to work) and I’m tired enough by the end of the day that I can usually hit the pillow with ease. Without anything forcing structure on me, I’m like a bag in the wind. Routine lets your mind and body know what it should be doing when, including when it should be winding down for sleep. I’m sure you’ve heard the usual “no blue light before bed” rule, but it’s true! Give yourself at least half an hour without screens before bed. The blue light from screens confuses your brain into thinking it’s daytime. So as much as I would love to continue my binge watch of The Magicians at 2 am, I know that’s not the right move. It’s honestly all about fooling your brain.  

Diana and Endymion painting

Diana and Endymion, Michele Rocca

Another way to fool it? Don’t work in bed! “But it’s so comfortable!” I hear you yell. It is, and that’s the problem. Working from bed blurs the lines between work and sleep; your brain starts to associate bed with being productive, which is the opposite of what should be happening. Say it’s gotten late, and you’re still tossing and turning. A good thing to do is to pick up a book. A better thing to do is to bring that book into another room and read it there. Sit on the couch and read until you feel sleepy, and then head back to bed. Again, make sure your brain knows that bed = sleep.  

For an extra jump-start to sleepiness, meditative practices are always useful. It might take a while to successfully shut your racing mind up, especially if it’s being fueled by anxiety, but it’s really worth a try. Insomnia is an ugly cycle that self-perpetuates: you’re stressed so you can’t sleep, then you’re stressed because you can’t sleep, and soon all you can think about is how you’re not sleeping, like Chandler explains in that one Friends sceneHoopla has plenty of insomnia help guides, many of which single out meditation (or mindfulness) as a sleep aid. To take your mind off stressful thoughts, an easy starting practice is to lay on your back and tense your muscles one by one, starting from the top of your head down to your toes. Scrunch your muscles, hold them for a few seconds, and then relax, moving onto another body part. Throughout this, the most important thing is to breathe, deeply and purposefully (you should feel your chest and stomach fill with air on the inhale).  

And of course, some good practices during the day: don’t overdo the caffeine or alcohol, especially close to bed, and if you can, try to fit in a workout! Or at least, some sort of physical activity. It’s especially unmotivating to get up and move when our whole day is structured around our couches, but there are actually some great workouts you can do right from home! Check out our video featuring our favourite workout apps, or head back over to Hoopla and browse their home workout collection. Or, just put on some music and dance, go for a walk….it’s all good! As long as you’re working off some of that pentup anxiety, you’re doing well.  

Do you have any sleep tips? Anything that works particularly well for you? Or just any weird dreams you’d like to share? Drop them in the comments!


About Alyssia

Alyssia is an Information Assistant at the Vaughan Public Libraries. Nothing makes her happier than a great book and a great cup of coffee. She loves fiction in all formats - books, movies, television, you name it - and is always on the lookout for awesome new music.

4 thoughts on “Can’t Sleep?

  1. My days literally revolve around my workouts at this point – they’ve been the first thing I plot in my Google calendar week to week, even before my work schedule goes in – and while I’m sure the actively chirping birds early in the pre-dawn hours have something to do with it, I’ve been finding myself sleeping much more soundly & actually being able to wake up/get out of bed with less difficulty! Meditation has never really clicked with me, but I have read many a book that has suggested I maybe try it out because there are many many MANY studies demonstrating its positive effects.

    We talk so much about corona anxiety nowadays, and I have to wonder: how much of it is actually corona anxiety, and how much of it was there from before, surfacing mainly because we have so much more time to brood and really stew in all that troubles and has been troubling us? Which is not to minimize the effects of the pandemic on our anxiety, especially for those who are at higher risk. It does make me think though about whether the current state of affairs is primarily revealing the dark underbelly of our hectic “normal” lives pre-COVID-19 (because let’s not pretend we all had perfectly healthy routines and schedules before all this and that anxiety was not already running rampant then), or if it’s generating new anxieties (gotta keep up with the productivity after all).

    I hope you got your full chicken from Starbucks now that they’re reopening more stores!

    1. Sigh Karen, your commitment to workouts is so admirable lol. I wish I was like you. But that’s great that you’re sleeping more soundly! More proof that exercise is actually a big factor in sleep quality.

      I think you’re totally right about the COVID-related anxiety. Normally we’re so busy that anxiety is just sort of background noise, you know? For some of us anyway. But with all the time in the world to sit around with our own thoughts, that anxiety can make its way to the foreground. So I definitely think it’s surfacing, but I will say personally there is the added fears for my own health plus the health of my family and friends, as well as the fear of what the future holds. I get anxious just THINKING about returning to normal life! My thought cycle is: wishing I could do the things I used to do all the time, being scared to do those things, wondering how long I’ll be scared to do those things, and repeat! I think the uncertainty of it all is probably the biggest contributing factor to piling on the anxiety.

  2. Great post Alyssia on such an important topic! It was just last Saturday night when I rediscovered Mika’s “Take It Easy” ( and all of a sudden I was looking up karaoke on YouTube and jamming to guilty pleasures like Shania and Britney. I’m pretty sure my neighbours are already way beyond tired of my soloist moments, but I’d like to think I’ve been sharpening up those vocals during quarantine haha!

    Lukk, I have to completely agree with you about these pre-existing, latent anxieties. I’m fairly confident they’ve always been there, but add in a MAJOR CHANGE to society (job insecurity, social isolation, health concerns, etc) and you have the perfect cocktail for those mental health issues to rise to the surface and amplify.

    Great suggestions Alyssia about eliminating screens close to bedtime. Now that VPL is offering curbside pick-up, we finally have access again to our beloved print books (for me, I just can’t bear the thought of leisure reading on yet another screen!). With the weather finally turning a corner, I look forward to long walks and bike rides, and Vitamin D, which I am hoping will all contribute to a more restful night!

    1. Lol Daniela!! I haven’t thought of that Mika song in YEARS but as soon as I saw the title I went “take it eeeeassss-aaaayyyy”. Now I’m going to fall into a Youtube hole again…

      I’m with you on preferring print books. Ebooks are a great alternative option but I agree, personally the last thing I need is ANOTHER reason to look at a screen. I think Kobos are great for that reason, since most of them mimic paper and don’t have that blue light. But I don’t have one lol. And I am also super excited for bike rides and sunshine! I think for sure that should help anxiety-related insomnia 🙂

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