Insomnia During Times of Stress, Anxiety, and Uncertainty

Coping with Insomnia, Stress, Anxiety, Uncertainty

Many people are experiencing insomnia due to stress, anxiety, and uncertainty.


Insomnia, trouble falling or staying asleep, is a common symptom of stress or anxiety. So, it’s no wonder that so many of us aren’t sleeping well as we're faced with growing coronavirus cases, a high-stakes election and divided nation, fire season in California, and a multitude of other personal and communal stressors. You may be worried about your or a loved one’s health, your job or business, your children’s education, the economy, or feel a generalized sense of stress or uneasiness. And as a result, more of us are struggling with insomnia. This is normal given the circumstances, but it doesn't mean it's easy to deal with.

I’ve heard from a few people who say their sleep has actually improved in recent months because they’re home more and their schedule isn’t as hectic. But most of the readers, clients, and friends I’ve spoken to say that they’re having more trouble sleeping than usual. And, as you know, getting enough quality sleep is essential to our health. So, if you’re experiencing insomnia, please know that it’s a normal response to stress and that there are steps you can take to help you sleep better.

Are you maintaining a regular bedtime and wake-up time?

A consistent bed and wake-up time is one of the first things to go when your schedule is disrupted and this can contribute to insomnia. Your body’s circadian rhythm, or internal clock, craves consistency. By going to bed at the same time, your body will release melatonin, a natural sleep hormone, your energy will dip and you’ll get tired at the same time every night, making it easier to fall asleep.

Tip: If you tend to stay up too late or fall asleep on the couch most nights, try setting a bedtime alarm to signal that it’s time to finish what you’re doing and get ready for bed.

Are you drinking more caffeine or alcohol?

Most people realize that caffeine is a stimulant that can keep them alert and awake, but many don’t realize that caffeine stays in your system for more than 6 hours.

Tip: Avoid drinking caffeinated beverages in the afternoon or evening. If you’re very sensitive to caffeine, you may want to limit chocolate as well.

During these stressful times, you may be drinking more alcohol as a way to cope or relax. Or you may be drinking more during the week because you don’t have to get up and head to work at the crack of dawn. And, although some people find that alcohol initially helps them fall asleep, it can make it difficult to stay asleep. A review of 27 studies showed that alcohol reduces REM sleep, which is the deep, restorative stage of sleep.

Tip: Keep track of how much alcohol you’re drinking. If you’re consuming more than one or two standard drinks per day, try to substitute some with a healthy, tasty alternative and look for other ways to relax.

Are you exercising?

With colder weather approaching, less daylight, and many gyms still closed or offering limited options due to COVID-19, you may need to change how and when you exercise. Regular exercise is not only good for your emotional and physical health, but it also contributes to quality sleep. Just don’t exercise too close to bedtime or it may keep you awake.

Tip: Be sure to balance your reading and TV watching with some active household projects, at-home yoga, walks, or bike rides.

Are you avoiding your feelings?

Bottling up your stress and worries just leads to an even bigger pile of stress and worry. They don’t just go away if we ignore them. And feelings and worries that we don’t deal with when we’re awake, tend to show up when we’re trying to sleep – either as insomnia or bad dreams. Your worries and difficult feelings need to be acknowledged and given space to exist before they’ll go away.

Tip: Schedule a time to check-in with yourself and notice how you’re feeling. Try writing in a journal, talking to a supportive friend about your feelings, or processing them with a therapist.

Are you spending more time in front of a screen?

Social media and the 24-hour news cycle have always been a blessing and a curse. We love the easy access to information, but it often makes us feel worse. Too much time on social media or news sites can increase your stress and anxiety, especially in times of unprecedented uncertainty and change. Also, if you’re working from home or your state or town has a stay at home (shelter in place) order, there’s a good chance that you’re spending more time in front of a screen. And if you live alone, video calls may literally be the only way you can safely see your friends and family at this point. Our computers, smartphones, and televisions are extremely important as ways to communicate, connect, work, and entertain ourselves. However, the blue lights from screens disrupt melatonin production (a hormone that helps us relax and sleep) and the anxiety-inducing content can also contribute to insomnia.

Tip: Don’t check your phone right before going to bed (or while you’re in bed). Try to turn off your devices 30-60 minutes before bedtime or at least decrease the brightness of the screens. If possible, don’t sleep with your phone right next to your bed (or put it on do not disturb) to avoid being woken up by notifications.

Do you know how to relax?

That may sound like a strange question, but some people find it hard to relax. They see relaxation as a waste of time, feel burdened with too many responsibilities, or think they need to be productive and busy in order to have value. But being able to relax and release stress from our bodies is good for us and we need to be able to relax our bodies and minds to fall asleep. If it’s hard for you to relax, think of it as a skill that you can practice. Make a list of things that sound relaxing to you (like taking a hot bath, a cup of herbal tea, a back rub from your partner, meditating, dimming the lights and lighting a candle, listening to soothing music, a body scan) and give them a try. Don’t expect a miracle, but if you keep practicing you are likely to find something that helps you relax.

Tip: Allow 20-30 minutes for a relaxing activity before bed.

Tip: Lavender is known to aid in relaxation and can be found in many bath products, lotions, and candles.

Do you have other outlets for your stress?

Anxiety has a physical component, which is why you may experience muscle tension, headaches, rapid heart rate, or gastrointestinal issues when you’re anxious. In addition to acknowledging and processing their feelings, many people find that they need a physical outlet for their stress, which might include exercise, meditation, yoga, physical labor or gardening.

Tip: Identify some stress-relieving activities and try to incorporate them into your daily or weekly schedule.

Do you have a bedtime routine?

Children do well when they have a set bedtime routine (such as taking a bath, putting on pajamas, brushing their teeth, reading bedtime stories, and a goodnight hug) and so do adults. A bedtime routine is another way to cue your body and mind that it’s time to sleep, relax, and transition from wake to sleep. It should include your nighttime hygiene routine, changing your clothes, and something relaxing like reading or listening to music. Try to keep your routine simple and consistent.

Tip: If you’re too tired to complete your bedtime routine, you probably need to start it earlier. Allow 15-30 minutes for your routine before you actually want to be asleep.

Are you expecting too much of yourself?

Getting enough quality sleep may mean you need to make some significant changes to your current activities and ways of coping. And while, sleep is important enough to warrant sacrificing some of what we want to do or are used to doing, only you can decide if now is the time to do it. Trying to change too many things at once can be stressful in its own right and that’s counterproductive – we’re trying to reduce not increase our stress. So, if it’s overwhelming or stressful to make these changes, that’s okay. The most important thing is to have self-compassion, cut yourself some slack because the future feels extra scary and unknown right now. Yelling at yourself for drinking an extra glass of wine or falling asleep in front of the television, is not going to help.

Tip: Don’t try to change too much all at once. Choose one thing to work on this week. If you don’t do it perfectly, be kind to yourself and keep trying.

Additional Resources for Insomnia and Relaxation


coping with insomnia

©2020 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Originally published by
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Sharon Martin, a licensed counselor and psychotherapist in Northern California, specializes in helping adult children of alcoholics and others who struggle with anxiety, perfectionism, and self-criticism. She has a private psychotherapy practice in CA where she is available for online counseling. Sharon is also the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism and write the blog Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today.

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