I Tried Listening to Sleep Music to Cure My Pandemic Insomnia — Here’s What Happened

published Apr 24, 2021
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Credit: Lula Poggi

On a recent Thursday night, I wrapped up my work around midnight and started scrolling through social media as a “well-deserved treat” after a long day’s work. A few memes and rants later, my mindless scrolling was interrupted by chirping birds. Strange, I thought. What are birds doing here in the middle of the night? I walked toward my window to see morning walkers taking to the streets under faint hints of sunlight. It was 6 a.m. 

This wasn’t the first time I have stayed up all night, either — though the act itself is relatively new to me. I started experiencing insomnia in the middle of last year, much of which was likely due to the pandemic. Before stay-at-home orders caused the world to effectively shut down, I used to wake up early to attend lectures, hobby classes, and work meetings. But these “time signposts” have since disappeared, and I started pushing my bedtime an hour or two later because I didn’t have any place to be in the morning as a result. 

I started experiencing what experts are now calling “revenge bedtime procrastination,” by staying up late to find a sense of me time because the daytime feels out of control. But I didn’t realize I was ruining my circadian rhythm, to such an extent that my body simply couldn’t function well. I started feeling sleepy at random hours but stayed up all night… and now because my body simply refuses to sleep. 

What is pandemic insomnia?

As the BBC noted in January, I am far from the only person missing out on sleep in recent months. “If you’re having insomnia, you’re in good company – much of the world is, too,” Dr. Steven Altchuler, a psychiatrist and neurologist at the Mayo Clinic, explained at the time. “It’s a consequence of all the changes we’re experiencing in Covid.”

Insomnia itself is a pretty common sleep disorder, and so-called pandemic insomnia exacerbates those symptoms in connection to the upheavals of the global crisis. While “pandemic insomnia” itself is not a medical term, naming it in such a way can be helpful for people trying to identify the root cause of why they can’t sleep so that they can then find relevant treatment options. 

Through months of researching and reporting on the mental health effects of the pandemic, I knew one of the best ways to bring my sleep cycles on track was to start sleeping and waking at a fixed time. That seemed easier said than done: How could I relax if my mind kept racing all night? How can I slow down and create a restful ambiance if I was bursting with energy at midnight? 

If you’re experiencing more insomnia than ever, it can be helpful to consult with a doctor. To be honest, I also turned to Google, Reddit, WhatsApp group chats, and advice blogs for answers, and these anecdotal sources kept pointing me towards sleep music. I was intrigued. If music was something I actively enjoyed, how could I use it passively to help me sleep?

What is sleep music?

Sleep music varies in style and genre — for some people, white noise machines help best while others might prefer a recording of a gentle rainfall. I found that I prefer a bamboo flute recording backed by soft piano. Most music you’d hear at a relaxing spa trip could qualify as “sleep music.”

As Alex Savy, a certified sleep coach who founded SleepingOcean, an online guide to better sleep, noted, listening to music can help decrease one’s heart and respiratory rate, leaving you in the kind of tranquil state that is ideal for drifting to sleep. “It also reduces the levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, while boosting the production of dopamine, the happiness hormone, creating a winning combo that can help you manage your stress effectively before sleep and consequently, have better quality rest,” he says. 

So if you’re stressed and unable to find a moment of peace, sleep music may work as an external intervention to help reduce the mental chatter and induce a state of relaxation. 

Another reason why sleep music can help people with insomnia is that “listening to music before sleep is likely to extend the REM sleep stage, the deep sleep, which means you will get more restorative, restful sleep,” Savy says. If you’re suffering from chronic pain, some types of music might even help with pain management as well. 

What happened when I tried sleep music:

My first experience with sleep music wasn’t without hesitation: I picked the first video from a Youtube search and closed my eyes, hoping for the best. I didn’t immediately fall asleep (that only happens in movies and sleep music commercials), but I felt a deep sense of relaxation, and like my racing mind finally paused. I took deeper breaths and felt grounded. 

For the first few days, I was excited — even on YouTube alone, there were so many channels to choose from, so many types of music to try, and so many habit combinations to explore. I repeated this with other videos across different days, times, and environments — no matter what I picked, I wound up feeling calm, if not sleepy. The music became a tool to relax my mind and body. 

What if you live with other people?

One big obstacle to using sleep music is that you have to hear the music as you drift off to sleep — and if you live with other people, they might not be as interested in listening to something while in bed as you are. I don’t live alone and I knew my family wasn’t going to be too happy waking up to random piano tunes, so this was an issue I would need to solve sooner rather than later.

Yet while sleep headphones can be expensive, it’s important to note that sleeping with in-ear headphones is dangerous. Doing so, Savy explains, “can potentially lead to reduced circulation, especially if you sleep on your side and one of the earbuds ‘digs’ into your ear; wax build-up; and hearing issues if you play your music on a high volume.”

Instead, I decided to listen to sleep music when I was awake as part of a wind-down routine to lull myself into a slower state of mind. I made a playlist to help resist the urge to change songs and set a timer. Even so, there were nights when my brain was more anxious than usual and found the music irritating. 

“Choosing something that is not going to cause a physical or emotional reaction is important,” says Dr. Clara Russell of Noggin, a brand of sleep and wellness products. Your favorite song will excite you too much and make it harder to wind down. But you don’t want to put on music you hate, as that might trigger negative emotions and hamper sleep overall. 

I found my sweet spot in soft music with steady beats, such as a repeating pattern of flute melodies or a consistent tune. Something about the constant rhythm nudged my body into a state of mild focus, surrender, and restorative relaxation. 

My final challenge was consistency. Some days I forgot to play my sleep music before bed, and there were others whereI felt too bored to make the effort. “Routine is key,” Dr. Russell says. If you’re fighting pandemic insomnia, one night of sleep music likely won’t serve as a cure — it takes constant effort to retrain yourself to sleep.

What I Learned

Finding what works for you takes time. Instead of letting a YouTube video run passively in the background, I started experimenting with volume and speed, and realized I could further change my experience by playing a song at either double time or half speed. 

Knowing that fixed bedtimes and night routines together improve the circadian rhythm, I also started making small changes to my lifestyle to support my new sleep music habit. I added slower activities like reading and meditation to my routine. “Sleep music can serve as an auxiliary tool that you should combine with stress management, healthy sleep hygiene, screen time management,” and other options, Savy points out. At the end of the day (metaphorically and literally), sleep music may not “cure” your insomnia, but it certainly can be a helpful step towards more restful sleep.