- Vitor Koshimot
When pandemic lockdown fell like a blanket over the country in March 2020, Justice McCray thought maybe they’d have time to finally get some rest. Sleep had been elusive for a while. “But between COVID anxiety and the heightened awareness of what it meant to be Black in the world around me, all these things increased my anxiety,” says McCray, a librarian and activist who is running for Beacon city council. McCray had a hard time going outside after hearing the story of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was shot and killed in Georgia while he was out jogging. And after learnng what had happened to Breonna Taylor, a Black medical worker from Kentucky who was killed by police in her home in the middle of the night, it was hard to be inside as well. “Just knowing that at any point, that could be my fate, too—that is something that keeps you up,” McCray says. “I don’t think there was any way for me to feel safe without disassociating from my own identity. It was this cycle of torment within myself, and not because of anything I chose, but because of how my identity presents itself in the world, and the way the world has perceived and historically treated people like me.”
It wasn’t until a local George Floyd protest on June 1 of last year that something shifted for them. “Normally in Beacon, protests are like 20 people on the corner, holding signs and getting honked at by cars,” says McCray. “I thought, I don’t know how many people are going to show up, but this is important—this is worth risking my life for.” They arrived early, and already a large crowd had gathered. “Hearing hundreds of people chant ‘Black Lives Matter,’ that was the first time that part of my identity felt cared for—felt that it could possibly be loved. It’s kind of terrible that I had to wait that long in life to feel that. I didn’t want to let that feeling go.” After the event, with a few other local activists, McCray cofounded Beacon for Black Lives, a youth-led, grassroots organization dedicated to fighting systemic racism and violence against people of color. Yet, while activism helps McCray feel a little less hopeless, a satisfying night’s sleep remains frustratingly out of reach. “The level of anxiety has stayed the same, even if the directions it’s coming from have shifted,” they say. “I don’t know when I’ll be able to feel like I can rest. I don’t know when I’ll be able to feel like I can breathe.”
To Sleep, Perchance to HealDisordered sleep is on the rise in communities everywhere, and it’s no wonder. With a pandemic that has no end in sight, and deeply ingrained racial and social inequities that evade quick fixes, sleep is a restless business for many of us. Yet while COVID-19 and systemic racism aren’t going away overnight, there are things we can do to protect and cultivate satisfying, restorative sleep. To do so is not only critical for our physical and mental health—it’s essential for our ability to know our higher purpose, live soulfully and imaginatively, and do our work in the world.
“I’ve seen more insomnia issues in my patients for sure,” says Dr. Shelby Harris, a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in White Plains who specializes in behavioral sleep medicine, and the author of The Women’s Guide to Overcoming Insomnia: Get a Good Night’s Sleep Without Relying on Medication (Norton Books, 2019). “Increases in stress, anxiety, and job disruption are all obvious causes for sleep problems. For many patients, their sleep issues began once they contracted COVID-19, suggesting insomnia may be a lingering symptom. On the other side, though, some patients actually improved their sleep with the pandemic because life wasn’t as busy with commuting and work/life commitments. But overall, rates are way higher now for insomnia and sleep specialists are busier than ever.”
Several studies, including one from Italy published last month in the Journal of Sleep Research, find that people have had more awakenings, a harder time falling asleep, and more vivid and restless dreams during the pandemic. “When we get quiet at night, that’s when we’re flooded with those intrusive thoughts about the unknown and what’s next, and fear and anxiety about ourselves, our families, and our loved ones,” says Lisa Cypers Kamen, an Accord-based optimal lifestyle management consultant, host of “Harvesting Happiness Talk Radio,” and author of Rested: Solutions for Restorative Sleep and Well-Being (forthcoming from DreamSculpt Books). Anxious thoughts can lead to a rise in the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which rouse the body and make it harder to sleep. If that happens night after night, lack of sleep can ravage our physical and mental health. Our immune systems take a toll, making us more prone to illness, especially when we repeatedly get less than six to seven hours of sleep a night. A 2019 Physiological Reviews study found that prolonged sleep deficiency can lead to chronic, systemic low-grade inflammation and is associated with diseases from diabetes and atherosclerosis to neurodegeneration.
Conversely, sound shut-eye may well be the most powerful immune elixir available to us. “Sleep is a restorative healing space, and when we don’t get enough of it, the body can’t fight what it’s trying to heal,” says Kamen, who cites scientific findings that sleep strengthens not just immunity but also immune memory. “There’s so much speculation of what happens when we sleep, but nobody really knows. We do know that during sleep, breathing and muscle activity slow down, freeing up energy in the body for the immune system to focus on its job of consolidating learning and memory.” Perhaps that’s why studies find that good sleep can improve vaccines’ effectiveness. And because sleep and overall health are biodirectionally linked, their effects on each other can flow both ways. Depression and anxiety, for example, can play mischief with sleep—but science shows that improving sleep issues like insomnia can measurably boost your mood.
Rest as ResistanceWe’ve all heard earfuls about the benefits of good sleep on the body and mind, but let’s face it: We tend to ignore it. We live in a culture obsessed with performance and results, and it’s considered a point of pride to suppress the needs of the body, work late, and push ourselves around the clock. The rise of remote work during the pandemic means we need to prove our productivity even more, answering late-night emails and dwelling perpetually in the blue light of our devices—a virtual wrecking ball to a good night’s sleep.
Are we brainwashed in the West into thinking sleep deprivation is a badge of honor, proudly declaring, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead?” Tricia Hersey thinks so. An activist, performance artist, spiritual director, and community organizer, Hersey founded the Nap Ministry, an organization that posits rest as a form of resistance that pushes back against capitalism and white supremacy—two systems that have commodified the body as a tool for production, and that put profits over people. “We actually have lost our imagination—it’s been stolen from us by grind culture,” Hersey says on “For the Wild” podcast. “Grind culture refuses to see the divinity of you as a human being. And if you buy into grind culture, you actually are aligning yourself with the concept that you’re not a divine being, and that your worth hasn’t already been given to you by the fact that you’re alive.” Rooting her work in the history of slavery and plantation labor, she is spreading the gospel of rest and sleep through community napping experiences, workshops, and performance art installations. “I name sleep deprivation as a racial justice issue, as a social justice issue, as a public health issue,” she adds. “Rest is key to any type of liberation.”
The challenge lies in reclaiming our sleep, even when it seems irretrievably disrupted by anxious thoughts and self-sabotaging habits. That’s where advice from experts like Harris and Kamen comes in. Harris helps patients get back to healthy sleep patterns with behavioral sleep medicine—a newer but growing area of sleep psychology that focuses on the evaluation and treatment of various sleep disorders by working at them from a behavioral, physiological, and psychological standpoint. Offering tips for the sleep-challenged, she notes that it’s important not to force it if you can’t fall asleep after 20 minutes or so. “Instead, get up, sit somewhere else and do something quiet and relaxing in dim light, without a screen,” she says. “Return to bed only when you’re sleepy.”
For restless minds, Harris suggests trying “worry time.” Set a timer for 20 minutes and sit in a comfortable place with a pen and paper. Worry time is a time to worry about whatever you want (ideally not right before bed). “If you worry about things that have to be taken care of, write down one step to help you move toward an eventual solution,” she says. “If the worries are unproductive, consider writing down ‘let it go’ to recognize the worry but also realize there’s nothing you can do about it.” When the time is up, go back to your life. But if you find yourself worrying outside worry time, don’t ignore it. “See the thought in a mindful way, make note of it, and say to yourself, ‘not now, during worry time,’” explains Harris. “You recognize the worry, but are also training yourself to worry during specific times. If you do this technique regularly, you might notice that your mental chatter may quiet down a tad.”
Powering Down to Rise UpTo help at wind-down time, Kamen suggests creating a sanctuary in our bedrooms and our beds. It starts with powering down our electronics, and ourselves, well before bedtime. Find a relaxing nighttime routine that does not include screens, such as reading, gentle stretching, or using lavender essential oil. “I take a shower every evening before I sleep because for me, it’s symbolic of washing off the day, washing off the worry and stress of the day, and it triggers my mind to prepare for sleep mode,” says Kamen. “I do it by candlelight, or with lights on a dimmer in the bathroom.” Listening to soothing music, meditating, or practicing slow, deep breathing can also calm an overactive mind. And once you do climb into bed, use it for two things only: sleep and sex. “Do more of that second thing,” Kamen adds, “because sex is a wonderful sleeping pill.”
If you’re still not getting a solid seven or eight hours a night, catching a daytime nap can be a small act of grace. Even just resting the body and letting the mind wander and daydream can help to reclaim some of the creativity and soulfulness that gets crushed by grind culture. Hersey will tell you that taking time to rest is downright subversive—a delicious way to say no to a system that isn’t working.
It’s also a way for activists and changemakers like McCray to keep doing the work that matters to them, which takes a toll physically as well as mentally. “I know that in order to be good at what I do, I have to be rested and I have to take care of myself,” they say. “And even though I find it hard to rest, I still am able to dream of the future that I want to see, a future where I don’t feel unsafe. A future where people in my community don’t have to worry about discrimination or violence simply because of their background. Unfortunately, that’s something that still happens in subtle ways and blatant ways. And while I’m around, I refuse to let it get swept under the rug. I think at least knowing that I’m praying for a better future makes it easier to rest at night.”