by Dr. Robert Rosenberg, medical adviser to SoClean
If you’re having trouble sleeping right now, you’re not alone: The COVID-19 pandemic is causing people around the world to take anxiety to bed with them at night. And the stress is coming from a myriad of directions, as we lie awake worrying about contracting the virus ourselves, our loved ones contracting the virus, losing our jobs or other repercussions. Not to mention, there’s a good chance that your day-to-day schedule has been completely disrupted, your community has been all but shut down and/or you are now adjusting to working from home. In other words, it’s a lot all at once.
During this unprecedented time, it can feel like all the ordinary rules are out the window—pour yourself a cocktail at 2 p.m., binge on news, stay up watching Netflix until 2 a.m., sleep as late as you want, etc. But the self-care “rules” that you abided by pre-pandemic should remain in place, as they’re more important now than ever to your mental and physical health. Compounded over time, sleeplessness caused by stress can lead to chronic insomnia, depression or a compromised immune system.
Why you should keep a stable sleep-wake schedule right now
What if we used this time as an opportunity to take better care of ourselves, rather than worse? As the World Economic Forum points out, “With the increase in travel restrictions and staying home, this is a good time to catch up on all the sleep lost as a result of our busy lifestyles.”
Even if you’re working from home, you should stick to a stable sleep-wake schedule that’s akin to the one you had when you had to go to work every day. Here’s why:
- Sleep and your mental health: Sleep, anxiety and depression go hand in hand. Many people with depression have insomnia, and many people who have insomnia eventually go on to develop depression. To safeguard against this, it’s very important to ensure you’re getting your REM sleep, which is when you dream and do most of your emotional processing work. If you’re depriving yourself of REM sleep because of poor sleep hygiene, or because you’re drinking too much alcohol, then it’s understandable that your anxiety or depression might be exacerbated. Staying up late or waking up late can also throw off your circadian rhythms completely and make it more difficult to adjust when you do go back to a normal work schedule.
- Sleep and your physical health: At a time when you want to have your immune system firing on all cylinders, the last thing you need is to have your body’s natural defenses jeopardized because you’re tired. However, stress and anxiety can compromise your immune system because when you’re stressed, you tend to produce more cortisol. Cortisol can inhibit the production of the immune effector cells and cytokines that you need to fight infection, which is one reason people who are constantly stressed are more susceptible to some diseases than are people who are not stressed and who sleep well.
Tricks for sleeping well during a global pandemic
Getting a good night’s sleep is very important during times of high stress because stress is reciprocal: The less you sleep, the more difficult it will be to deal with stress. And the more stressed you are, the more difficult it is to fall and stay asleep. If you’re having trouble sleeping right now, take heart. There are things you can do to manage your stress in ways that help with the duration and quality of your sleep.
Here are some of the suggestions I’ve been sharing with my patients:
- Work up a sweat: Even though it can be more difficult to exercise now that so many gyms are closed, it’s important to do so daily to reduce stress. This will make it easier for you to unwind and fall asleep at night.
- Make the hour before bedtime sacred: Relax for a good hour before you get into bed. Use this time to get into a calm, relaxed state by reading a book, listening to soothing music, meditating or praying.
- Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness has been found to be very helpful in terms of improving people’s stress. Try to live in the moment, not to linger in the past or guess about the future. Stay in the present and enjoy whatever you can enjoy. If you need assistance, numerous free digital downloads exist to help you get in this frame of mind: Here are some of the best.
- Create a place of calm: The ideal sleeping environment is dark, quiet and cool. To fall asleep and stay asleep, keep your thermostat between 65 and 68 degrees.
- Say no to screens at night: Right before bed, resist the urge to check your phone or tablet. And certainly, if you wake up in the middle of the night, do not reach for these devices, as they will only cause you to be more anxious. The blue light from these devices suppresses the melatonin that your brain is trying to produce, and they’ll suppress it for a significant amount of time, making it difficult to get back to sleep.