Make Sleep Your Pandemic Priority When You Have MS

I try to be hopeful about the coming end of the pandemic. But let’s face it—it’ll be a while before we can get a COVID-19 vaccine and move on to reclaim “normal life” (whatever that means).

In mid-January, the National MS Society delivered some hopeful news:

“The COVID-19 vaccines are safe for people with MS. The vaccines do not contain live virus and will not cause COVID-19 disease. The vaccines are not likely to trigger an MS relapse or to worsen your chronic MS symptoms. The risk of getting COVID-19 far outweighs any risk of having an MS relapse from the vaccine.”1

COVID-somnia

Still, the bureaucracy behind vaccine dissemination is vexing, with no clear rules as to when people with MS will receive vaccines. After almost of year of worry and loss, this good news only brings more anxiety and a new kind of sleeplessness coined COVID-somnia.

Who among us hasn’t experienced anxiety-induced insomnia at some point in the last year? I know I’ve lain awake many nights in the dark, trying to catch my breath.

Yet the repeating message from healthcare experts continues to be: get your sleep. In fact, sleep itself may provide protective benefits to help us survive the virus.2

But how can we when the immediate future seems so bleak?

First, prioritize sleep

As a sleep technologist and educator, I’m usually the one to offer comfort and advice to those struggling with sleep. But as a person with MS, I also deal with sleeplessness from pandemic anxiety.

We’ve all been here before, right? People with chronic illness deal in mysteries every day. We strive to be ready for anything. Likely, we’ve already practiced behavior modification to manage MS. COVID-somnia is something we can manage, too. It starts with prioritizing sleep.

Stress management

Stress, of course, is the constant that unites us all, and I try to take comfort in that. But with an autoimmune disorder like MS—triggered by stress— there’s an added layer of worry.

Let’s start at square one: stress management. How do you know when you’re stressed?

  • Sleeplessness
  • Clenching muscles
  • Shallow breathing
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Mood swings
  • MS symptoms

How to manage stress? Observe it when it occurs and respond proactively:

  • Counted yogic breathing helps me a lot.
  • Some people find solace in a warm Epsom salt bath.
  • A brisk walk in nature can settle anxiety.
  • It’s useful to practice acceptance of what can’t be controlled.
  • Talk about fears with a loved one or a therapist can be healthy.

Feel the feels

These are trying, dangerous, unpredictable times. Worrying is normal, it’s what motivates us to take action.

It’s okay to worry...a little bit, anyway. We just need to experience worry in a way that doesn’t make us sicker or deprive us of sleep.

Try giving yourself 10 minutes a day to express the negative feelings you’re carrying around.

Write them in a journal, or say them out loud (to yourself or an audience). I know a dancer who literally dances it out of her system every morning. Artists — dare to doodle feverishly!

However you express it, feel all the feels. Offloading what’s ransacking your emotions can liberate you. Afterward, take a deep breath and get back to your day.

You can do this at any time during the day, but do it at bedtime only if you feel it won’t sabotage your sleep.

Review your sleep hygiene

People often forget how daytime behaviors influence nighttime sleep. No, sleep hygiene is no cure-all, but it can improve your chances of falling asleep. Here’s a checklist.

  • Go to bed and rise from bed at the same time every day.
  • Practice a nightly bedtime relaxation ritual.
  • Keep your sleeping space as quiet and dark as possible.
  • Keep a cool bedroom, which is most likely to induce sleep.
  • Avoid using handheld electronic devices at bedtime; they emit blue spectrum light, known to pause the brain’s production of the sleep hormone, melatonin.
  • Don’t consume caffeine after lunch; don’t consume alcohol at bedtime.
  • Skip heavy meals and midnight snacks.
  • Quit smoking. It’s not good for sleep or MS.
  • Engage in mild exercise, especially in the earlier part of the day.
  • If you must nap, keep it short and don’t take one late in the day.
  • Discuss your MS medications (DMTs and those used for symptom relief) with your physician if you suspect they interrupt your sleep.

Get help

Don’t suffer alone. Aside from appealing to loved ones in your “pod,” consider telehealth therapy, especially cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-i).

Or, talk to your neurologist about your sleep problems; they’re well aware of COVID-somnia and may want to investigate other potential sources of sleeplessness common to people with MS—undetected sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, and hypersomnias—which can be treated.

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