The pandemic has been a great disruptor: of the economy, of our work, of our routines—and our sleep. While poor sleep is a byproduct of the stresses and strains we have all been experiencing over the past year, a bad night’s sleep can compromise our ability to deal with the other challenges we face. It becomes a vicious cycle: bad sleep turns into a bad day, leading to more bad sleep.
If that cycle sounds familiar, you are not alone. Across the globe, nearly 40% of the population is experiencing sleep problems. The word insomnia was Googled more in 2020 than ever before. Sleep disorders have become so prevalent that some experts have coined a new term (“coronasomnia”) to describe the phenomenon. If you are not sleeping 7 to 8 hours a night, you are sleep-deprived.
Sleep disorders have two sources: an unusually high level of stress and changes in our sleep behavior. Stress is inevitable. We cannot control stress, but we can choose how we respond to it. Unfortunately, some tempting ways to cope with pandemic stress are not suitable for our sleep, so they backfire in the long run. Let us mark World Sleep Day on March 19th by committing to better ways to manage stress—and most of all, to making some simple but powerful changes to our sleep behavior.
Repair your routines
Healthy sleep thrives on healthy routines. Irregular routines are a recipe for irregular sleep. One of the best strategies for improving sleep is to fix your routines.
Start with your sleep routine. Maintaining a consistent sleep schedule is the single most important habit for better sleep. Rise and retire at the same time each day. If you can, try to avoid compensating for a poor night’s sleep by sleeping late or going to bed early the next night.
Other habits for good sleep hygiene include making time to wind down and de-stress as you approach the end of the day. Even if you still have things on your to-do list, at some point you have to step away from work. Make space for pleasurable but low-stimulation activities like light exercise, yoga, meditation, reading, or journaling. Listen to soothing music. Stay away from your computer and phone.
Your other routines also play an essential role in healthy sleep. Irregular practices can disrupt your circadian rhythm. Steven Altchuler, a sleep specialist at the Mayo Clinic, says we have lost the “external cues” that previously served to help structure our days: things like our commute, office meetings, and a lunch hour. Even if you are still working from home, try to recreate some of those previous rhythms.
Sleep and stimulation
Although it may sound counterintuitive, our body and mind need certain kinds of stimulation throughout the day if we are to sleep well at night. Light, especially natural light, helps “tune” our body’s clock. Make a point of getting outside and drinking in some daylight soon after you wake. Draw back the curtains and let the sun in. If it is dark or you do not have much natural light, turn on bright indoor lights. (At night, practice the reverse routine, gradually darkening your environment.)
As I wrote about recently, boredom is an unexpected source of stress. We need variety and mental stimulation in order to thrive. Even with ongoing pandemic restrictions, make a point of adding novelty, learning, and delight to your day.
Finally, do not neglect the physical stimulation of regular exercise, which releases stress, supports our circadian rhythms, and makes it easier for us to fall asleep at night.
Are you having trouble sleeping?
Even in the best of times, we are not going to sleep well every night. And during a pandemic, it is almost inevitable that we will at some point wake up in the middle of the night and have trouble returning to sleep. Or we may not be able to fall asleep in the first place. How we deal with such nights is another critical aspect of good sleep hygiene.
Paradoxically, the best strategy is to take a break from trying to sleep. If you cannot fall asleep, get out of bed. You do not want to associate your bed with sleeplessness. Go to another room and do something relaxing, perhaps some light stretching or listening to meditation music or binaural beats.
If you still cannot sleep, focus on resting, says one helpful guide. Worrying about sleep or trying too hard to sleep is not restful. At the very least, try to ease your mind and body into a relaxed state.
Things to avoid
In addition to establishing and maintaining a consistent schedule, avoiding the following culprits is the quickest way to improve your sleep health:
- long or late naps
- a large meal at the end of the day
- excessive consumption of alcohol or caffeine, especially later in the day
- exposing yourself to too much news or social media at night
- a lot of screen time in the hours before bed
Many of us are experiencing unusual levels of exhaustion, mental heaviness, mental fog, or all three. All of these can be symptoms of inadequate sleep and can also cause bad sleep. Taking a few simple steps to restore a healthy sleep routine is one of the best ways to break this vicious cycle and restore your well-being. As we prepare to return to some semblance of normalcy, the theme of this year’s World Sleep Day—“Regular Sleep, Healthy Future”—could not be more timely.
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