There’s nothing better than crawling into bed at the end of a long day, and falling into a deep and peaceful sleep. Unfortunately this can be interrupted by a great many things, even ones we’re unaware of, and in the midst of a pandemic, more and more people are having trouble catching z’s like they used to.
In a Wired article titled How To Sleep When the World is Falling Apart, Brian Barret quotes Lisa Medalie, a behavioural sleep medicine specialist at the University of Chicago. Medalie says that she’s encountered a spike in insomnia cases during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Insomnia isn’t just staying up late. It’s the inability to sleep—or to fall back asleep if you wake in the middle of the night—with no obvious impediments to explain it,” writes Barret. “Implicit in the definition, too, is that the deprivation negatively impacts your ability to function the next day. It’s acute when it lasts a few days or weeks; if it extends longer than a month, it’s considered chronic.”
If you’re one of the many who have found yourself staring at the ceiling in the middle of the night, know that you’re not alone.
What’s the problem?
“During times of increased stress, sleep is often the first biological system to malfunction,” Candice Alfano, director of the University of Houston’s Sleep and Anxiety Center, told Wired. I don’t know about you but, in my opinion, a world gripped by a pandemic that has countries enforcing martial law in order to keep people indoors is pretty high on the list of stressful situations.
Sleep is not an optional luxury, and the inability to get the rest we need negatively affects every aspect of our physiology. In another Wired article, Emily Dreyfus lists the ways our quality of life is lessened by not sleeping enough: “it makes you dumber, more forgetful, unable to learn new things, more vulnerable to dementia, more likely to die of a heart attack, less able to fend off sickness with a strong immune system, more likely to get cancer, and it makes your body literally hurt more. Lack of sleep distorts your genes, and increases your risk of death generally, he said. It disrupts the creation of sex hormones like estrogen and testosterone, and leads to premature ageing.”
None of that sounds like a good deal, and yet sleeplessness has almost become a COVID-19 symptom – whether we’ve been exposed to the virus or not. We have so much going on in our heads. We’re worrying about the disease itself, the health risks to our families and friends, our financial security, our children. We’re adjusting every aspect of our lives to a world filled with fear and uncertainty. When we’re not churning all of that over in our minds during the day, they’re bobbing up to the surface at night.
Barret quotes Medalie: “The thoughts are going to produce emotional responses, the emotional responses are going to produce more thoughts, and the realisation that time has passed and you’re not sleeping produces anxiety.”
And so the cycle continues.
On top of all that, many of us are stuck at home, leading more sedentary lifestyles. We have our eyes glued to screens emanating melatonin-inhibiting blue-spectrum light. This can wreak havoc on out sleep-wake cycles and have us up all night double tapping TikTok videos when we really should be sleeping.
So what can we do?
We’re probably going to be stuck with these pandemic stress triggers for a while. If we can’t avoid them our best option is to find ways to manage the anxiety they bring.
Neuroscientist and author of Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker has worked as a sleep consultant to the NBA, NFL and Pixar Animation Studios, among other impressive names and he has some tips, many of which you’ll have heard before (but haven’t been doing for whatever reason).
Walker recommends going to bed and waking up at the same time every day (even on weekends). Now that most of us don’t have anywhere to be, this should be a somewhat manageable adjustment. He advises that we avoid caffeine and alcohol (Alcohol is a sedative and sedation is not good quality sleep), and sleep in a cool room (with socks if your feet are cold). Dim all the lights and turn off screens about an hour before bed time to avoid that blue-spectrum light we talked about earlier. If your phone has a warm light function for night time, turn that on. Walker also recommends not lying in bed if you find you can’t fall asleep. “You wouldn’t sit at the dinner table waiting to get hungry, so why lay in bed waiting to get tired”. If it helps calm you down, try some meditation techniques.
Sleepfoundation.org recommends getting exercise every day (even during lockdowns): “Vigorous exercise is best, but even light exercise is better than no activity. Exercise at any time of day, but not at the expense of your sleep”. They also suggest keeping track of how well you sleep in a diary in order to figure out which changes are working for you, and which aren’t.
It’s so easy to get overwhelmed by everything we’re experiencing right now and forget about fixing the problems with our sleep routines. If we’re focused on projects at work, or achieving personal goals, our sleep can easily fall by the wayside. But, as Walker points out, sleep literally makes us perform better in every field and “the disruption of deep sleep is contributing to cognitive decline” in our entire society.
“You need sleep after learning, to essentially hit the save button on those new memories so you don’t forget. But recently we’ve discovered that you also need sleep before learning. Almost like a dry sponge to suck up new information. Without sleep, the brain becomes essentially water logged.”
We’ve written before about how we can use our time in quarantine to improve our lifestyles and relationships. Fixing up the problems in our sleep schedules can be just one more self-development and self-care goal to add to the lockdown checklists.
At times like these it’s extra important to take good care of ourselves, so why not start with one of our most basic and important needs. Perhaps perfecting that will help bring us a little closer to all those other quarantine goals.
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