Contributed by Lucia Smith, MA, LPC, CCATP
So many of my clients are having trouble sleeping during these unnerving times. Many of them are worried about themselves, family, friends, and co-workers contracting the Coronavirus. Some of my clients are essential workers who have to go out in public masked and gloved hoping they are protected. I think this widespread problem of insomnia is rampant because the pandemic brought so many changes to our lives. The pandemic regulations came so quickly and escalated so fast that our heads are spinning.
When we lay down to sleep it can feel like all of our worries and fears come out to play. It doesn’t help that we are now separated from our neighbors, friends, and the religious organizations that would normally support us when we are anxious and frightened. We are all trying to adjust to this “new normal” but it can be even harder if we are sleep deprived. I went to the experts at the National Sleep Foundation to get the best evidence-based information for fighting insomnia during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s what I found.
- Adequate sleep is so important during times of crisis because insomnia affects rational thought, mood, mental health, and the immune system.
- Sleep heightens brain function. Our mind works better when we get good sleep, contributing to complex thinking, learning, memory, and decision-making. For adults and children adapting to work and school at home, good sleep can help them stay sharp.
- Sleep enhances mood. Lack of sleep can make a person irritable, drag down their energy level, and cause or worsen feelings of depression.
- Sleep improves mental health. Studies have found that a lack of sleep is linked with mental health conditions like anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, and PTSD.
- Sleep promotes an effective immune system. Solid nightly rest strengthens our body’s immune defenses. and studies have even found that lack of sleep can make some vaccines less effective.
If you are not sleeping, you are missing out on these benefits. But how can you improve your nightly rest?
Here are ten sleep-improving guidelines that you can try right now:
1. Set Your Schedule and Routine
Establishing a routine can facilitate a sense of normalcy even in abnormal times. It’s easier for your mind and body to acclimate to a consistent sleep schedule, which is why health experts have long recommended avoiding major variation in your daily sleep times. Sleep-specific aspects of your daily schedule should include :
Wake-Up Time: Set your alarm, bypass the snooze button, and have a fixed time to get every day started.
Wind-Down Time: This is an important time to relax and get ready for bed. It can involve things like light reading, stretching, and meditating along with preparations for bed like putting on pajamas and brushing your teeth. Given the stress of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s wise to give yourself extra wind-down time each night.
Bedtime: Pick a consistent time to actually turn out the lights and try to fall asleep.
In addition to time spent sleeping and getting ready for bed, it can be helpful to incorporate steady routines to provide time cues throughout the day, including : showering and getting dressed even if you aren’t leaving the house, eating meals at the same time each day, and blocking off specific time periods for work and exercise.
2. Reserve Your Bed For Sleep.
Sleep experts emphasize the importance of creating an association in your mind between your bed and sleep. For this reason, they recommend that sleep and sex be the only activities that take place in your bed.
- This means that working-from-home shouldn’t be working-from-bed. It also means avoiding bringing a laptop into bed to watch a movie or series.
- On any given night, if you find that you’re having a hard time sleeping, don’t spend more than 20 minutes tossing and turning. Instead, get out of bed and do something relaxing in very low light, and then head back to bed to try to fall asleep.
- Frequently changing your sheets, fluffing your pillows, and making your bed can keep your bed feeling fresh, creating a comfortable and inviting setting to doze off.
3. See The Light
Exposure to light plays a crucial role in helping our bodies regulate sleep in a healthy way. As you deal with disruptions to daily life, you may need to take steps so that light-based cues have a positive effect on your circadian rhythm.
If you can, spend some time outside in natural light. Even if the sun isn’t shining brightly, natural light still has positive effects on circadian rhythm. Many people find outdoor time is most beneficial in the morning, and as an added bonus, it’s an opportunity to get fresh air.
As much as possible, open windows and blinds to let light into your home during the day.
Be mindful of screen time. The blue light produced by electronic devices, such as mobile phones, tablets, and computers, has been found to interfere with the body’s natural sleep-promoting processes. As much as possible, avoid using these devices for an hour before bedtime. You can also use device settings or special apps that reduce or filter blue light.
4. Be Careful With Naps
If you’re home all day, you may be tempted to take more naps. While a short power nap early in the afternoon can be useful to some people, it’s best to avoid long naps or naps later in the day that can hinder nighttime sleep.
5. Stay Active
It’s easy to overlook exercise with everything happening in the world, but regular daily activity has numerous important benefits, including for sleep.
- If you can, go for a walk while maintaining a safe distance from other people, that’s a great option. If not, there is a wealth of resources online for all types and levels of exercise.
- Many gyms, yoga and dance studios are live-streaming free classes during this period of social distancing.
6. Practice Kindness and Foster Connection.
It might not seem critical to your sleep, but kindness and connection can reduce stress and its harmful effects on mood and sleep. Despite all the bad news that you may come across, try to find some positive stories, such as how people are supporting one another through the pandemic. You can use technology to stay in touch with friends and family so that you can maintain social connections despite the need for social distancing.
7. Utilize Relaxation Techniques
Finding ways to relax can be a potent tool in improving your sleep. Deep breathing, stretching, yoga, mindfulness meditation, calming music, and quiet reading are just a few examples of relaxation techniques that you can build into your routines. If you’re not sure where to get started, check out smartphone apps like Headspace and Calm that have programs designed for people new to meditation. Another relaxation strategy during this pandemic is to avoid becoming overwhelmed by coronavirus-related news. For example, you can try techniques including:
- Bookmarking one or two trusted news sites and visiting them only during a limited, pre-set amount of time each day.
- Cutting down the total time that you spend scrolling on social media. If you want a hand in this effort, a number of apps can monitor and even block your time on social media sites or apps each day.
- Scheduling phone or video calls with friends and family and agreeing in advance to focus on topics other than the coronavirus.
8. Watch What You Eat and Drink
Keeping a healthy diet can promote good sleep. In particular, be cautious with the intake of alcohol and caffeine, especially later in the day, as both can disrupt the quantity and quality of your sleep.
9. Make A To-Do List
A new study suggests that writing in a journal for five minutes before bed can help you sleep.
But critically, what helps most is NOT writing about what you accomplished during the day, but writing out your to-do list for tomorrow.
10. Park Your Worry
Tell yourself you’ve done all you can for that day and there’s nothing more to do. Then pick it up again the next day, after a good night’s sleep. You don’t have to implement all of these recommendations right away. You can make these suggested changes at your own pace and see which ones make a difference in your ability to sleep
If you try all of the recommendations and you are still struggling to sleep, You might consider contacting a doctor. Most physicians can video conference or talk to you on the phone so you won’t have to risk going to their offices. There are many good sleep medications that will help you fall asleep and stay asleep. They are not addicting and won’t leave you feeling groggy the next morning. Your doctor should also be able to recommend natural supplements that can also help you sleep.
I hope these recommendations will get you some restorative sleep so you will enjoy all the benefits of a rested body and brain.
Lucia Smith is the owner of Clear Mind Counseling, located in the Straube Center in Pennington. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 609-902-3271