The current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has had a major impact on how people sleep. In a recent study published in the journal Current Biology, researchers found people reporting sleeping more, but a decrease in the quality of that sleep.
In the study, data showed that after countries imposed stay-at-home, isolation, lockdown, or social distancing orders to slow the spread of COVID-19, people were sleeping longer at night, but overall sleep quality decreased.
“Sleep is one of the most important health behaviors for optimal immune function, mental and physical health, and quality of life,” said Lori Neeleman, Ph.D., DBSM, clinical psychologist at Intermountain Healthcare. “Biologically, stress and sleep just do not play well together.”
The current COVID-19 pandemic has led to significant stress across individuals, families and communities.
“With the current recommendations to stay home, many people are finding themselves without the structure to anchor a normal day/night routine,” said Kevin Walker, MD, medical director of Intermountain Healthcare’s Sleep Disorders Center. “The lack of routine coupled with increased stress is a perfect storm for the development of sleep problems.”
In times of stress and uncertainty it becomes even more important to engage in strategies that can help to manage stress such as: regular exercise, healthy meals, relaxation/mindfulness, self-care and connection (within the COVID-19 guidelines for social distancing).
In addition to focusing on healthy behaviors, the following list of 11 strategies from the Intermountain sleep experts provides specific recommendations that can lead to better sleep:
1. Create and maintain regular daytime and nighttime routines.
- Get up about the same time each morning.
- Go to bed about the same time each night.
- Set regular mealtimes and exercise/play times.
2. Prioritize getting outside each day for at least 30 minutes, preferably before noon.
- Consider a walk around the block in the morning or breakfast outside.
- Bright light exposure helps our body maintain a regular 24-hour rhythm which is crucial for quality sleep.
3. Avoid worrying, working, answering emails, watching movies, or hanging out in bed and help your kids do the same.
- A strong association between the bed and sleep can help with falling asleep faster and getting back to sleep during the night.
4. Go to bed when you feel sleepy and don’t try to “make” yourself go to sleep.
- If you go to bed and can’t sleep, get up and do something relaxing until you are sleepy and go back to bed.
- Avoid falling asleep on the couch, in the recliner or other places that aren’t your bed.
5. Calming and soothing bedtime routines are important for kids and adults.
- Reserve the hour before bed for activities that are positive, relaxing and create a sense of safety and ease.
- Read a positive, not too exciting book.
- Take a shower/Bath.
- Review things for which you are grateful.
- Talk with friends and loved ones.
6. Dim the lights in the evening and avoid screens one to two hours before bed.
- Bright lights and screens send a signal to the brain that it is daytime which can lead to more difficulty falling or staying asleep and more fatigue the next day.
- If you must be on a personal electronic device before bed, enable the night mode or download a blue light blocking app to help filter some of the light that negatively impacts sleep. Blue light blocking glasses can also be used for evening screen use.
7. If you find yourself worrying or having trouble quieting your mind, take some time a couple of hours before bed to write down the things that are concerning you.
- Set aside a “worry time” the next day to focus on the things on your list.
- Keep a pad of paper by your bed so you can write things down.
8. Relaxation exercises, such as slow easy breathing, performed on your own or with the guidance of an app or recording can be helpful at bedtime.
9. Pay attention to healthy sleep habits.
- Avoid caffeine after noon.
- Avoid alcohol in the evening. (Avoid the use of alcohol for sleep. While it can be associated with falling asleep faster, it leads to waking more often during the night and poor-quality sleep.)
- Keep your room cool and dark.
- Avoiding eating meals within two hours of bedtime.
10. For adults, short naps (15-20 minutes) in the midafternoon can feel refreshing and provide a daytime boost.
- Longer and/or later naps can interfere with nighttime sleep and it is usually best to avoid long naps if you are having trouble sleeping at night. However, if you are ill, napping and extra sleep may help in recovery, so allow for that extra sleep if needed.
11. Take sleep medication only as prescribed.
- Avoid frequent or long-term use of over-the counter sleep aids.
Remember that in times of stress, sleep often becomes temporarily disrupted, but will return to normal in time. If you are experiencing a lot of distress about your sleep, talk with your medical or mental health provider.