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4 ways to sleep better during the pandemic

1 Dec 2020

The stress of Covid has led to a rise in sleep problems. Here are 4 ways to help control your stress response to current events and get better sleep

Quick facts

  • Increased stress, lack of light and more screen time impact sleep
  • Exercising in natural daylight can set your sleep/wake cycle
  • Using relaxation exercises to switch off your stress response before bed is helpful too

If you’ve been struggling to sleep since the start of the pandemic, you’re not alone.

Since the onset of the coronavirus, there’s been an increase in anxiety-induced sleep problems around the world.

In a study by King’s College London, 6 in 10 people reported their sleep patterns had suffered since lockdowns began. Those who felt stressed by the coronavirus crisis were more than twice as likely to report sleep disturbances. 3 in 10 also reported that although they were sleeping longer hours, they felt less rested when they woke up.

This rise in stress-related insomnia has been described by sleep experts as ‘coronasomnia’. This is by no means a medical diagnosis. It just highlights the sleep issues being experienced by so many due to the anxiety caused by Covid.

Even before the pandemic, research suggests that insomnia affected anything from 10-30% people worldwide.

But now, social isolation, financial worries and fears about health, our loved ones and the future, mean that more of us are feeling too stressed and anxious to get a good night’s sleep.

Also, as we head into winter with shorter, darker days and less opportunity to spend time outdoors, sleep problems may worsen. Yet, we need sleep to keep us healthy.

Lack of sleep weakens the immune system and can lead to health problems, including high blood pressure, depression and diabetes.

If your sleep has been affected by stress, here are some simple, proven ways to help get it back on track.

1. Set your sleep/wake cycle

All biological functions — including sleeping and waking up — are governed by circadian rhythms. These are 24-hour cycles regulated by the body’s internal master clock (found in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus).

This takes its cues from exposure to natural light. During the day, that keeps you alert and active. At night, the lack of daylight leads to the production of the hormone melatonin which makes you sleepy.

In winter, less exposure to natural daylight can disrupt sleep patterns. Spending too long in the evenings sitting in bright artificial light and exposure to blue light emitted from computers, TVs and other screens can also hinder your body’s production of melatonin.

Make the change

  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day
  • Make sure you get outdoors at least once a day before the sun goes down. This could be a morning or lunchtime walk or run. The earlier the better, as there’s more light to help reinforce the circadian cues your body needs
  • Keep technology out of the bedroom and avoid screens for 1 hour before bed
  • Try to dim the lights at home for around 1-2 hours before bed (this will help the whole family sleep better)

2. Find a sleep routine that works for you

You’ve probably heard the rules of sleep hygiene before. But not all of these will work for everyone. Try out some of the below for a week or two until you develop a sleep routine that works for you.

Make the change

  • Make sure your bedroom is dark and quiet, and not too hot or cold. 16-18C is considered the best temperature for sleep
  • Have a warm bath or shower 1-2 hours before bed. This lowers your core body temperature, signalling that you’re ready for sleep
  • Avoid stimulants like coffee, tea, alcohol and energy drinks for 6 hours before you go to sleep
  • Practise some form of relaxation before bedtime, like yoga, mindfulness meditation or breathing exercises. These switch on your parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) which is the body’s ‘rest and recover’ mode
  • Switch off the news and avoid reading anything that makes you feel stressed last thing at night
  • Only use your bedroom for sleeping, reading and having sex, so you don’t associate it with stressful activities like work

3. Get active every day

If you’re not expanding enough physical energy, it will be harder to sleep.

Exercising on a regular basis, with activities such as swimming or walking, can help relieve some of the tension built up over the day.

But vigorous exercise before bed – like running or a session at the gym – may keep you awake.

Make the change

  • Each week, do at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity, like walking, swimming or gardening, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity, like rowing, dancing and jogging
  • Exercising outside during daylight hours can help you set your sleep/wake cycle
  • Try not to do vigorous training 1 hour before bedtime

4. Switch off your stress response

Being hyper-stressed before bed puts you in a fight-or-flight response, which is not helpful for falling asleep.

But while there’s no magic wand to make the coronavirus crisis go away, improving your body’s reactions to stress will help you sleep better.

You can do this by finding ways to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), which will put you in a calmer, more relaxed state before bed.

Techniques that help to activate the PSNS include meditation, yoga, gentle stretching exercises, listening to relaxing music and progressive muscle relaxation (see below).

Make the change

Try this progressive muscle relaxation exercise to help you wind down before bed or drift back to sleep if you wake in the night. Here’s how to do it:

  • Find a comfortable position in bed
  • Let yourself relax and focus on any bodily sensations you feel, like any tightness in the shoulders
  • Breathe deeply and slowly
  • Starting with your head, neck and shoulders — and working down to your feet — notice where you feel any muscle tension. Focus on letting the tension go in each area, one at a time. For example, imagine breathing into your shoulder muscles and releasing tension, then into your abdomen, and so on
  • Do this until you can start to feel your body relaxing

How Livi can help with sleep

If you feel you’ve tried everything and nothing seems to help you sleep, a Livi doctor can check there aren’t any physical causes, like sleep apnoea (which is when your breathing stops and starts while you sleep).

They can also refer you to a psychologist for a course of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This can help to change the thoughts and behaviours that are stopping you from sleeping.

This article has been reviewed by Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP, Livi.

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