As the global pandemic drags on, many of us are more stressed out than usual. And that often means scoring a lot less sleep at night.
“Trying to get good sleep while you’re stressed out is like trying to make a half-court shot while blindfolded,” said Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles. Breus focuses on insomnia and high-performance sleep coaching, a three- to six-month program for CEOs, athletes and celebrities.
“You can do it, but it’s really tough to pull off.”
Let’s say you have been feeling extra overwhelmed lately. That, Breus said, prompts your body to release cortisol, the primary stress hormone. This coincides with sugar (or glucose) entering the bloodstream, which elevates your blood pressure.
Next thing you know, Breus said, your muscles tense up, your heart pumps faster and your brain kicks into overdrive. It’s the old fight-or-flight response you learned about in grade school. In other words, your body is now in survival mode.
That is what makes falling asleep very tricky.
When that stress persists week after week, the body adjusts to the higher cortisol levels. This continues to prevent you from getting quality shut-eye but can also lead to serious problems like heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and depression, according to Breus.
Enter these sleep-focused apps.
We use apps for just about everything, so why not use them to help us out when it comes to sleep, right? Perhaps. It depends on what type of sleep issue you are having, since Breus said there are 88 different sleep disorders.
“I think that apps will be helpful for people to manage stress, become educated and learn about their sleep environment,” Breus said.
When looking for an app, first consider what is keeping you from sleeping and what the app is going to address. Do you need to quiet your noisy environment, ease your stress levels or address a diagnosed condition?
Make sure to think of it as a tool, not as a stand-alone solution that can solve your unique situation. And keep in mind, it’s best to place the phone face down so the screen light doesn’t bother you. For most of the apps, you can also download content and put your phone in airplane mode, so you won’t receive calls or texts while attempting to snooze.
Here are some expertly curated apps, chosen by Breus and New York City-based psychologist Joshua Tal, who specializes in treating sleep disorders.
If your sleep issues persist, make sure to consult with your doctor for personalized medical advice. Many medical professionals are offering telehealth services during the pandemic.
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Apps that nix a noisy environment
Some relaxation apps lull you into dreamland with sounds of the Amazon rainforest or monitor your sleep habits throughout the night. Others incorporate meditation to help reduce stress levels before bedtime. And some, designed specifically for insomniacs, require a prescription.
“I usually recommend nature and white-noise apps for clients that have a snoring bed partner or loud noises outside,” Tal said.
Portal ($29.99 per year), for example, is an app that uses immersive 3D sounds – think gentle waves in Hawaii, a log fire in Switzerland or a whale encounter in Tahiti – as a way to help you get ready for bed.
“It can be a good wind-down, pre-bedtime activity,” Tal said.
Other noise-blocking apps include White Noise Generator, Relax Melodies and myNoise.
Apps to ease your mind
Breus said he’s impressed with Pzizz ($9.99 per month), an app that uses binaural beats, with two different frequencies played in each ear. Plus, there is a man’s voice encouraging you to relax. Don’t worry: You can mute this if you’d like. The user can also schedule bedtime reminders, as well as nap reminders.
BrainTap Pro ($9.99 per month), another mobile app that Breus recommended, is designed to retrain the brain and also incorporates binaural beats. This one combines those beats with guided visualization, 10-cycle holographic music (a sonic technology that produces a 360-degree sound environment) and isochronic tones, which are equal-intensity pulses of sound followed by moments of silence. It’s all meant to create a balanced brainwave state.
Headspace ($12.99 per month) includes sleepcasts, a 45-minute audio recording (think of it as a bedtime story) that uses sound, breathing exercises and visualization to help put you in a tranquil mood.
There are also sleep music, wind-down activities, soundscapes and guided exercises to help with waking up in the night. The 45- to 55-minute audio sessions aim to help you visualize a calm scene.
The Calm app ($69.99 per year) is similar. Users choose from more than 100 hours of soothing music, guided meditations and narrated sleep stories by celebrities like Kelly Rowland, Lucy Liu and Matthew McConaughey.
Likewise, Restflix ($7.99 per month), which Breus recommended, is a streaming service with hundreds of hours of sleep meditations, bedtime stories, serene landscapes, binaural beats and nature sounds to help people develop better sleep habits.
Apps that track your sleep
Tal said sleep-tracking apps — such as Sleep Cycle, Sleep Genius, Sleep Score and Pillow — can be helpful for those with mild sleep issues as a way to improve sleep environment and regimen. These apps certainly won’t give you the results you’d get by visiting a traditional sleep center, but they can help identify patterns.
Apps by prescription
When it comes to complicated sleep issues like insomnia and sleeplessness, Breus said, online digital coaching options offer a targeted approach, help pinpoint problems and have great data supporting them.
Somryst, a nine-week prescription digital therapeutic for chronic insomnia, which will be commercially available in the third or fourth quarter of 2020, must by prescribed and monitored by a licensed health care provider. It uses technology to deliver cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia digitally through a smartphone or a tablet.
Similar to traditional face-to-face CBT-I, Somryst uses tailored sleep restriction and consolidation; stimulus control; and personalized cognitive restructuring to improve insomnia symptoms. Along with that, there is a clinician-facing dashboard to track patient treatment and progress.
Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia has been recommended as the first-line treatment for chronic insomnia since 2016 by the American College of Physicians and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
“Somryst is the first FDA market authorized prescription digital therapeutic intended to treat patients age 22 years of age and older with chronic insomnia and the only FDA authorized therapeutic that delivers guideline recommended first-line treatment for chronic insomnia,” said Dr. Yuri Maricich, chief medical officer at Pear Therapeutics, the company that created Somryst.
Sleep is complicated
Whether you need to block out that barking dog next door or need help coaxing your mind to slow down, there is certainly an app to address the issue. But don’t be discouraged if it’s tough to figure out right away. Sleep is complicated, said Breus, and there are many reasons a person could have insomnia — like stress or work schedule. Apps will never cover all these factors or even most of them.
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“An app may be designed for one or two aspects of a person’s problem,” he said, “but none of these are personalized, like a person would have in a session with a therapist.”
Seeking help from a sleep psychologist first can be the best approach so that a specialist pinpoints the problem and guides you toward the right apps.
Sarah Sekula (@sarahsomewhere) covers stories about health/wellness, travel, fitness and extraordinary people, and her assignments have taken her to all seven continents.