Sleepy? strategies to improve sleep during the pandemic
Since Covid-19, many of us have experienced sleep difficulties. The pandemic caused much disruption. Last March 2020, we did not know how long the lockdown would be, nor could we anticipate how our lives would be affected.
We have experienced stress symptoms due to the increased uncertainty, affecting our mood. Our way of life changed, and we had to learn to deal with the risks and uncertainty about how things would unfold. We had to adjust to living in lockdown and learn new ways to keep in contact with others. Some lost their jobs, causing significant financial concerns.
Many of us have had difficulty getting to sleep or waking up in the middle of the night. Many have expressed experiencing worry thoughts about Covid-19 and the risks for families, friends and colleagues. In addition, it was necessary to change the way of working, moving all online for those who could do so, others had to restrict what they could do to comply with new regulations.
We all were affected, to some degree, by the unprecedented level of risk and have had to deal with ongoing uncertainty. We have not been able to plan, and we do not know how the changes will affect education and work in the future.
Having to maintain physical distance and keep to lockdown rules has affected people in different ways. Most people have had their day-to-day disrupted – homeschooling, working from home, normal activities suspended, which have required us to find ways to adapt to these changes.
Not having a set routine can make it more challenging to keep track of time, and the lack of our everyday activities can make it harder to mark the days of the week. In addition, staying indoors prevents exposure to natural daylight, and doing less exercise reduces energy levels.
A lack of structure and staying at home for long periods can alter our sleep pattern. Some may stay up late and sleeping in, disrupting the sleep cycle. The lack of exposure to daylight and lack of exercise also affect our sleep (Walker, 2014).
Many have been kept awake at night worrying about the impact of the pandemic, concerned about getting ill or wondering how to manage work and finances to keep paying the bills. We have been concerned about friends and family getting sick, and sadly some are grieving the loss of loved ones who died due to Covid-19.
It is understandable to be worried and experiencing symptoms of stress, anxiety and low mood. The lack of sleep can exacerbate these symptoms. In some situations, people have experienced symptoms of loneliness due to the lack of contact with others.
Most of us have turned to our digital devices to maintain contact with family and friends, for online working, to check the news and for entertainment. However, too much screen time during the day, and more so in the evening, can affect our sleep pattern.
The content of the communications and the prolonged exposure to the blue light from screens can prevent the normal production of melatonin, a hormone that has a vital role in the sleep cycle. In addition, it is distracting to receive new information, which then makes us want to continue to check our phones, preventing us from getting to sleep (Walker, 2014).
As a result of all these changes, many may have experienced stress symptoms for a prolonged period, interrupting their sleep pattern. We feel tired due to the lack of sleep. The loss of energy reduces our capacity to manage challenges, affecting our health, and reducing our ability to concentrate, motivation, confidence, and burnout.
Most of us know it is essential to protect our sleep to support our health and wellbeing. During sleep, our body repairs and restores cells to keep our bodies functioning well. It enhances our brain functions and supports our cognitive functions such as thinking, memory, planning, and regulates our emotions (Espie, 2006).
However, getting to sleep is not just a question of wanting to sleep. We cannot command our body to sleep. However, we can create the conditions to improve our sleep.
So what can we do to restore our sleep pattern?
Some recommend taking a short nap during the day to improve concentration and creativity. If you do not have sleep problems, a nap can be beneficial as long as it is only for about 15-20 minutes. However, if you are trying to restore your sleep pattern, avoid taking a nap as it limits sleep pressure. It is an essential part of the sleep cycle, where we need the pressure to accumulate during the day to get to sleep when it is bedtime (Espie, 2006).
Manage stress: It is a normal physiological response when the demands exceed our resources. It is how our brain and body respond to any challenge (McGonigal (2015).
It is normal to experience muscle tension, increased pulse rate, and breathing to get faster. It is the body’s system of mobilising energy so that we can manage the challenge. It is also what helps us to adapt to changes. However, ongoing chronic stress suppresses our immune system making us more vulnerable to illnesses (Macciochi, 2020).
A stressor may last for a short time or for a prolonged time. For example, when we must deal with complex work or a challenging life situation (Sapolsky, 2004).
When we feel we do not have control or feel as if we cannot overcome the problem, our brains react as if we were in physical danger. In education, we may have thoughts of not doing well academically or at work. We may wonder if we can function well due to all the changes and increased demand. We may also have financial concerns or worry about our future work or educational options.
Take a break, have a cup of camomile tea and drink it mindfully. It helps to be in the present moment, and it can help to ease the tension. Exercise has many benefits for our health, and it helps us to restore our energy.
Reframe stress: A way to manage the pressure is to reframe the situation and view it as a challenge. When the body triggers the stress response, we can interpret it as a signal telling us it is something important and that we need to do something.
We can start by changing how we view stress: research indicates that if we change our mindset, we can change the way our mind and our body react. McGonigal (2015) says that the best way to manage stress is to view it as a challenge and use the energy released to address the situation.
By looking for alternative ways of interpreting situations, we can identify ways of dealing with the situation and use the energy available to act. Next, focus on what you can do: In challenging situations, we may focus on the things that we cannot change. To deal with the situation, turn your attention to those things you can do something about and let go of what you cannot control.
Manage worry thoughts: Our brain is designed to anticipate possible negative scenarios for survival purposes. When having self-doubt, or imagining future negative scenarios, view these thoughts as just thoughts, not facts. Then, bring your attention to the present and focus on something you can do to move forward. (For more information click here).
Research shows that writing down our thoughts can help to reduce tension, and it contributes to processing our thoughts and feelings. (Pennebaker, 2014).
Another helpful approach is to practice self-compassion, where we are aware of our human condition and acknowledge that we, too, can make mistakes and are vulnerable. We can be kind and understanding, like when talking to your best friend. It is also helpful to focus on what we are grateful for as it can boost our wellbeing (Williams & Penman, 2011). Relaxing our body and focusing on resting can reduce tension and help to get to sleep.
Espie, C. (2006) Overcoming insomnia and sleep problems. A self-help guide using Cognitive Behavioural Techniques. London: Robinson Publishing.
Gilbert, P. (2010) The compassionate mind. London: Constable & Robinson, Ltd.
Leschziner, G. (2019) The nocturnal brain. Nightmares, neuroscience and the secret world of sleep. London: Simon & Schuster.
Macciochi, J. (2020) Immunity. The science of staying well. London: Thorsons.
McGonigal, K. (2015) The upside of stress. Why stress is good for you (and how to get good at it). London: Vermilion.
Pennebaker, J. (2014) Expressive writing: words that heal. Washington: Idyll Arbor, Inc.
Sapolsky, R. (2004) Why zebras don’t get ulcers. The acclaimed guide to stress, stress-related diseases, and coping. Revised and updated. New York: Hold Paperbacks.
Walker, M. (2014) Why we sleep. London: Penguin, Random House.
Williams, M. & Penman, D. (2011) Mindfulness: a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world. London: Piatkus.