According to researchers at Harvard, sleep is rapidly becoming the next casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over 1/3 of the adult population suffers from some form of insomnia under normal circumstances. Pandemic-related stress has exacerbated the problem for many of these people. However, it is also clear that those numbers are growing with the pandemic. In fact, one recent study revealed that after five years of steady declines, prescriptions for anti-depressants, anti-anxiety and anti-insomnia medications increased by 20% in February and March of 2020 alone.
There are many reasons for this heightened inability to sleep, including health concerns, financial distress and job loss. Isolation is also a major factor for many people, as is a disruption of regular routines. People who are used to getting up early and starting their day with an hour at the gym are suddenly faced with finding different motivations to start the day. That transition can be difficult and leads to additional stress.
There are ways you can improve your sleep hygiene, even during the pandemic. First, remember that good sleepers expend minimal effort on trying to sleep. Often the more you try, the more difficult it is to fall asleep. Try, as much as possible, to relax. Here are 10 tips that can help.
1. Establish An Electronic Curfew
Turn off all of your electronic devices at least 90 minutes before you go to bed. The blue light from electronic screens can prevent the brain from producing the sleep hormone melatonin, which can make it even harder to fall asleep. Consider putting your phone into sleep mode and turning off notifications. Avoid checking it at night. Looking at your phone wakes you up and may prevent you from falling easily falling back to sleep.
2. Turn Off The News
There is no question that the current news cycle is anxiety-provoking. While it is important to stay informed, in the interests of ensuring you are well-rested, give your brain time to recover by avoiding checking it constantly. Especially if you find yourself unable to stop thinking about the pandemic or other negative news events, it can be helpful to avoid the news, particularly in the evening before bed.
3. Cut Back On Caffeine
Caffeine is a stimulant, and that cup of black tea or chocolate bar you enjoy in the late afternoon or evening could be the culprit keeping you awake at night. Instead, try a soothing herbal tea. Smoking can have a similar effect, keeping you awake long after your body is telling you it is time to sleep.
4. Shut Down Early
Avoid eating two to three hours before bedtime. Also, avoid exercising too late in the day. Both of these activities serve to put your body on alert and can raise your body temperature, further impeding sleep.
5. Eliminate Naps
It’s ironic. The more severe insomnia gets, the more we might need naps. However, try to resist! Depression is a cause of insomnia, and this low mood combined with at-home isolation and a lack of energy can lead to increased napping. However, the more you nap, the more difficult it will be to fall asleep at night, and the more your overall sleep schedule will be disrupted. Instead, consider powering through your exhaustion and then give in to it at bedtime, or try to go to bed a bit earlier instead of napping during the day.
6. Create A Sleep Routine
Get up at the same time every day, preferably early, but also try to go to bed around the same time each day — yes, even on weekends. Your circadian rhythm, which acts like your body’s internal clock, plays a key role in regulating your sleep-wake cycle. It tells your body when it is time to wake up and when it is time to go to sleep. The melatonin your body begins to produce at dusk also plays a role. Aiding this process by maintaining a regular bedtime will make it far easier for you to fall asleep. It will also allow you to feel completely rested when you do wake up.
7. Avoid Alcohol
Alcohol is a depressant, so if COVID-19 related anxiety or depression is an issue for you, you should avoid it altogether. However, alcohol can also interfere with your sleep in other ways. While consuming alcohol may allow you to fall asleep more quickly, the rest you do get will be disrupted. The more you drink, the more these effects are exaggerated. You’ll wake up sluggish and more likely to continue the pattern of disrupted sleep.
8. Try Relaxation Exercises
If you are having severe problems falling asleep, consider trying some relaxation techniques before you go to bed. Deep breathing exercises can help you relax by reducing muscle tension, slowing your breathing and heart rate, and lowering your blood pressure and metabolism. There are numerous apps and videos which can guide you in relaxation techniques. In addition to breathing exercises, psychologists recommend biofeedback, autogenic training, guided imagery and progressive relaxation.
9. Exercise More Often
You may not be able to go to the gym or play your usual sports, but there are ways you can, and should, exercise. Physical exercise – whether you’re running, biking or walking – increases the amount of stress-reducing hormones you produce. You’ll also feel more tired and will be more likely to both fall and stay asleep. While it may be tough to muster up the motivation to get moving when you're feeling fatigued, the long-term benefits will make it worthwhile.
10. Get Some Sun
Even 15 to 30 minutes of sunshine soon after you wake up can help you sleep later. Although we are all spending far more time inside these days, sunlight still helps regulate our sleep patterns. Sunshine helps spark your brain and body to start moving, and daily doses of sunshine will help keep you awake throughout the day.
Conversely, when it is time to sleep, make your bedroom a dark cocoon free of distractions. Consider installing curtains or shades which keep the sun out while you are sleeping.
Prioritize Your Rest
A good night’s sleep is critical to staying healthy. These tips can help you get a good night’s sleep at any time, but developing these habits can also help prevent the stress, anxiety and insomnia produced by the COVID-19 pandemic.