The stress on healthcare workers over the last year and a half has been unprecedented, and it is affecting their sleep. In fact, a recent study showed nearly 40 percent of healthcare workers experienced insomnia during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Are you one of them?

Insomnia disorder is clinically defined as difficulty getting to sleep, maintaining sleep, or waking up too early. Electroencephalography (EEG) can detect insomnia and its characteristic patterns of asymmetry across brain hemispheres.

Whether or not you need an EEG, a sleep specialist can help you dig deeper into the underlying cause of your sleep disturbance. These can include conditions like restless leg syndrome, sleep apnea, and certain neurodegenerative or psychiatric disorders.

Most commonly, though, stress is the underlying cause.

The problem with stress is that it can act as a trigger that leads to longer-term sleep disturbance.

Stress and insomnia can also be self-perpetuating; the more you can’t sleep, the more you worry that you can’t sleep and so on.

It is important to interrupt this stress/insomnia cycle and you don’t need medication to do it, says Dr. Andrew J. Westwood, a sleep specialist based in New York City. Westwood has a few interventions that may be more effective in the long run.

Keep a Sleep Diary

A sleep diary is intended to track patterns of sleep disturbance more objectively. Sometimes this reveals a problem that is not so bad, Westwood says.

“What happens is everyone fixates on their worst nights of sleep and they don’t look overall,” he says.

Sometimes, after tracking several nights, patients “feel reassured and concerns about their sleep disruption actually fade away.”

Practice Good Sleep Hygiene

Sleep hygiene refers to behaviors that impact quality of sleep. Westwood says those struggling with insomnia need to increase habits that make you sleepy and decrease practices that keep you awake.

Examples of good sleep hygiene might include:

  • Dim lights and minimize use of electronics before bed
  • Cut out caffeinated beverages
  • Avoid exercise right before bed
  • Eat foods that won’t cause heartburn or stomach upset for dinner
  • Establish regular bedtime and morning routines

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) is a talk-therapy approach increasingly backed by research. This study even showed positive EEG changes with improvements in sleep following cognitive behavioral therapy.

With CBT-I, the patient works with a specially trained therapist to examine how their thoughts and feelings affect behavior and contribute to symptoms of insomnia. Westwood says that one way CBT-I helps patients is in addressing the “intrusive thoughts and worry” that tend to make insomnia worse.

“It’s very easy in the middle of the night to start catastrophizing about what may happen the next day if you don’t get your seven hours of sleep,” he says. The reality is, tomorrow may not be your best day, but you’ll get through the day and the sky will stay in place.

You can get more about how to get a better night’s sleep from the National Sleep Foundation and find a specialist trained in CBT-I through the Society of Behavioral Sleep.