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Sleep during COVID-19 pandemic

Are you lying awake at night worrying about the world? You’re not alone. Challenges caused by COVID-19 are stopping people everywhere from getting sufficient sleep, but there are things you can do to help.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted daily life for people all around the world. From illness, to economic hardship, to remote learning and working, people are dealing with new levels of stress and having to cope with a host of new challenges, all the while maintaining regular roles and responsibilities as parents, partners, carers, friends, and employees.

With such a variety of challenges facing people on such a large scale, sleep is more important than ever, yet it’s one of the first things that suffers. Let’s take a look at why sleep is so important, how the pandemic has impacted people’s sleep, and what you can do to improve your sleep during the hardship and stress that comes with a global pandemic.

Sleep is even more important during a global pandemic

Getting a good night’s sleep is critical to our physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing, regardless of what’s going on in our lives. Allowing our bodies and minds to adequately rest and relax at the end of each day has an important effect on our immune systems, and helps us to handle stress and negative emotions.

We all know how it feels to face the day after a night of disrupted sleep; we’re grumpy, clumsy, forgetful, and prone to emotional outbursts. It’s difficult to carry out your day to day duties when your brain is craving sleep. Now consider the additional mental, physical, and emotional demands that we juggle during an uncertain or particularly distressing time. This crucial biological process is more important than ever, to ensure we’re less irritable and better equipped to handle and adapt to the challenges of lockdowns, illness, and stress.

How does the pandemic affect sleep?

People all around the world struggle with insomnia, struggling to get their solid 8 hours of sleep even at the best of times (most experts recommend 7-9 hours, but the ideal number can vary from person to person). When faced with the stress and unpredictable nature of a global pandemic, people who ordinarily have no problems have started to experience difficulties with falling asleep, staying asleep, or getting good quality sleep.

The things that usually affect our ability to sleep, such as stress, worry, and mental fatigue, have become much more commonplace, as the whole world deals with widespread illness and lockdown, losing access to the people, places, and activities they love, and faced with the fear of losing family members or becoming ill themselves. Not to mention the confronting statistics we’re presented with in the news each day. Even those of us who have not been personally affected by the illness, may be experiencing anxiety about the future.

Furthermore, people who have survived COVID-19 are experiencing ongoing fatigue as a lasting symptom of the disease, making good sleep even more critical to the journey to recovery and leading a healthy, happy lifestyle.

The pandemic presents a variety of challenges that affect people in different ways. Of course, essential front-line workers and people suffering from COVID-19 are faced with direct and often traumatic impacts, and may require specific therapeutic approaches to ensuring they can fully recover. Let’s take a look at the biggest challenges caused by the pandemic that are affecting the average person’s ability to sleep and what we can do to improve things.

Fear and anxiety

Considering a deadly virus has swept the world, people have legitimate concerns for their own health, and that of their loved ones. Introduction of new hygiene rituals such as hand washing, disinfecting, and wearing masks, while proving effective, can also trigger anxieties in people, particularly when others are less careful or meticulous to minimise the transmission of the virus and other germs. Each day we’re faced with new infection rates, active cases and death counts, and the knowledge that, depending where we live, we could face third and fourth waves of infection, new strains, and harsher lockdowns, and even people who handle stress well are feeling an underlying level of fear and anxiety about the future.

Add to this, concerns about financial welfare, job loss and pay cuts, and you have many people spending their nights awake, minds racing, worrying about the present, and how to make ends meet. Fear and anxiety can cause our minds to race, often late at night, disrupting sleep and leaving us restless as we worry about things we don’t have much control over.

Disruption of routines

When we feel we can’t control things, routine and order can be the lighthouse that guides us back to a sense of calm and security. Yet, with countries all around the world adopting various lockdown and social distancing measures, many people have faced total disruptions to their regular daily lives. People are working from home, parents are homeschooling their children, and many recreational activities are restricted. These are major changes to the way people have been accustomed to living their lives. Disruption to the structure of our day can cause issues with maintaining regular sleep patterns, which are an important aspect of getting enough sleep. 

Adjusting to new routines takes time, and no sooner do people get used to a life in lockdown, balancing parenting with teaching and working, than the lockdown is lifted and they’re thrust back into their previous routines of school drop offs and long commutes on public transport, and the cycle of disrupted sleep begins again.

Increased screen time

Too much screen time is never good for sleep, with the stimulating blue light from computers and smart devices restricting the production of the sleep hormone, melatonin. Thanks to COVID-19, people are more glued to their screens than ever, keeping up to date with the news, connecting with friends and family over video calls and social media instead of in person, or simply tuning out to escape with a movie or TV show. Spending all day, and particularly evenings, in front of a screen is particularly detrimental to sleep.

(blue light blocking glasses, screen off earlier,)

Social isolation and depression

The isolation that can come with lockdowns and social distancing restrictions can very quickly lead to feelings of depression or hopelessness. As humans, we need social interaction and stimulation, as well as rewarding activities that bring us joy. When these things are removed or limited, it affects our mood and our emotional wellbeing, which, in turn, has a negative impact on quality of sleep. 

This is exacerbated for those who are at high risk due to pre-existing health conditions, or who have suffered distress, such as grief through the loss of loved ones to COVID-19, or a sense of insecurity through the loss of a job.

In times of great loss, people often turn to alcohol or other drug consumption to cope with negative emotions. While it’s widely thought that a night cap will help you fall asleep, research suggests that drinking alcohol before bed reduces the quality of sleep, once you get to sleep.

Reduced time outdoors

Similarly, many people aren’t getting outside as much as they used to, either because they’re confined to their homes, with curfews or limited time in public spaces,  or because they simply have less reason to head outside because they’re no longer commuting to work or travelling to and from activities. 

This reduced time outside often leads to a lack of sufficient exposure to light during the day, which in turn affects the body’s circadian rhythm, and its ability to produce melatonin or Vitamin D, which are both essential to healthy functioning and sleep.

Lack of physical activity

With gyms, yoga studios, and sports clubs closed, people who used to incorporate classes, gym workouts, and team sports into their regular activities are having to find new ways to exercise. While there are plenty of options for working out at home, it’s no surprise that people find it tough to find the motivation to do physical activity when they’re confined to one space, and when the social element is absent. We need physical activity during the day to help us get relaxing, restful sleep at night.

Increased stress and mental fatigue

While people living with family or housemates may not experience social isolation quite as strongly as those living alone, being confined together in the home for extended periods of time can cause significant stress for families and household members. Parents who already juggle the roles of provider, carer, cleaner, cook, teacher, partner, and worker, are now having to adopt all of these responsibilities at once, going from a work meeting to homeschooling duties, to bedtime stories, and back again. Even in the most peaceful household, these unending demands can lead to chronic stress and burnout. Add anything else to the mix, such as loss of work or relationship tension, and the situation can become unbearable.

The reduced ability to engage in rewarding activities such as seeing live music, dining in restaurants, or going to the cinema or a sporting event means that the tools that people usually rely on to relieve stress are no longer available. Stress, in turn, can cause headaches, stomach aches, fatigue, and other symptoms, not least of which, is a lack of sleep. 

A common misconception about fatigue is that if you’re fatigued, you should be able to sleep. In reality, you can be fatigued but still lie awake, tossing and turning. Or you could fall asleep but still wake up tired and lethargic.

What can you do to improve your sleep during the pandemic?

Things may seem dire, but it’s possible to make adjustments that will help improve your sleep, and in turn improve your resilience to the stressors and fears you’re faced with. Take these steps and start to make sleep a priority again, and in time you’ll see the benefits a good 8 hours each night can bring. Good sleep changes everything.

Set a regular bedtime (and rise time)

Set a regular bedtime and rise time and—as best as you can—stick to them. The closer you can get to hitting the hay at the same time each evening and getting up at the same time each morning, the more likely it is that you’ll fall—and stay—asleep each night. Establishing even just the slightest routine, even if the rest of your day is chaos, can significantly reduce how disrupted your sleep is by things like stress or worry. It can provide you with a little bit of a sense of the normal. 

Experts particularly emphasise the importance of getting up at a consistent time in the morning. If you’re working from home and you now have an extra hour in the morning due to the absence of a commute, try to maintain your regular wake up time and, instead of using the extra hour to sleep in, use it to read a book, meditate, or do an online yoga class. Not only will you start your day with a relaxing activity, you’ll also be better prepared to return to the office when the time comes.

Introduce wind-down time

An important part of going to bed is what happens before you go to bed. Allow yourself some time to relax and wind down. Take a bath, meditate, or listen to some relaxing music. Stay away from screens, or anything else too stimulating. Incorporating this wind-down time into your nightly routine will help your body and your mind realise it’s time for bed. It also allows you to process some of those worried thoughts prior to going to bed so that, hopefully, by the time your head hits the pillow you’ve moved on to other things. You may even like to use your wind-down time to do some journaling, to get those troubling thoughts down on paper to deal with the following day.

Create time for exercise

Block specific times off for physical activity. Whatever the time of day, make sure you’re getting at least some kind of movement in. Even just a 10 minute walk around the backyard, or a 20 minute yoga video (there are thousands of free videos online) will make all the difference.

Set an achievable goal for yourself and start small if you must, but you must create the time and make it a priority. 

If you can manage to go for a walk outside while maintaining sufficient distance from others, that’s even better, as you’ll get a dose of natural light, which places a crucial role in how our bodies regulate sleep.

Only use your bed for sleep

Research has shown that you can improve your sleep by training your brain to associate your bed with sleep. That may seem obvious, but once you start watching movies or scrolling on your phone in bed, you start to blur the lines, and your brain doesn’t necessarily realise that bed is the place for relaxing, winding down, and getting to sleep. Help yourself by making sure you reserve bed for sleep, and only watch movies on the couch, and put your phone on the nightstand, or even better, in another room.

Another step to this is the idea that if you really, truly, can’t get to sleep, you should get up. Because bed is for sleep, not for tossing and turning and lying awake worrying about the future. Sleep experts suggest that if you can’t get to sleep after a good 20-30 minutes of trying, you should get out of bed and do something calm and relaxing, such as some light reading in a low light, and then return to bed when you’re ready to try to sleep again.

Watch your news consumption

Try to keep your consumption of news to a necessary minimum. You don’t need to know all the numbers, you don’t need to know all the details of lockdown measures all over the world. Many people find it more calming to stay informed than to ignore the news, but just make sure to check in with yourself and make sure you’re not doom-scrolling. Choose a few set times during the day to check the news, or a few publications that you want to read to stay across the key stories, and leave it at that. Reducing your exposure to the new cycle will in turn lower your anxiety and stress levels, allowing your mind to wander elsewhere, and minimise the mental fatigue.

Seek professional help if you’re struggling

If you’ve already reached a point where your lack of sleep is having detrimental effects on your day to day life, it may be time to consider seeing a sleep professional. Reach out to your doctor or speak to one of our sleep coaches.

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