Coronavirus has changed our lives massively. Daily routines have changed, more people are working from home and the news along with social media feeds are being updated constantly with outbreak information. Those of us who work in healthcare settings and doing other key jobs are being directly affected, others may have a reduced workload but we are all feeling increased levels of stress and anxiety as a result. And getting a good quality nights sleep is one of the first things to go downhill.
In usual times, we control our stress levels either consciously or unconsciously with coping mechanisms. These might include meeting up with friends, playing sports, or taking breaks and going on holiday. In these strange times, those usual coping mechanisms might not be possible or might do the opposite and actually increase our stress levels. Like when you want to let off steam with your friends but you visit a restaurant full with warning signs and staff wearing PPE and you talk about the effects of coronavirus all night, not allowing you to switch off!
Why is my sleep being affected?
Anxiety is a fight-or-flight reaction; the brain realises our body may be in danger because our lives and routines aren't how they have always been. Stress hormones increase to increase our awareness in case there is anything around which could further put us in danger. Normally, anxiety levels reduce as soon as the stressor disappears. Like when you get home and relax after a hard day, or you finally get on the bus after running late and wondering whether you have missed it. However when that stressor remains over a long period of time the anxiety can impact on our sleep, concentration levels and appetite amongst other things.
When we are in this fight-or-flight mode, our bodies don't want us to sleep soundly or we may end up in more danger. Our ancestors would have been stressed about food shortages or attacks from predators, and so to sleep deeply during a period of anxiety could have led to them being eaten!! The worry around coronavirus isn't likely to affect us in this way, but it is the only way our bodies know how to respond to stressful situations.
So what can I do to improve my sleep?
If we can reduce our anxiety levels then good quality sleep should return to normal. If you struggle with insomnia or have any other long-term sleep problems then this advice may not apply. But for those who generally have a healthy sleep routine and have only recently been affected since the coronavirus pandemic started, don't panic - it's not forever!
Try to tackle your stress. Have you managed to explore any locations close to home you hadn't had chance to before? Look for the positives in working from home, maybe you have an extra hour at home with your family now that you aren't commuting. Despite not being able to see friends or family, have you been able to stay in touch using technology? How about using this time to take up a new craft or hobby?
Relaxation techniques such as meditation or breathing techniques may not appeal to everybody, but research suggests that they really do work well. If you're unsure where to start there are several free guided meditation apps available on smartphones or tablets, alternatively online videos may help. These guided meditations are often themed for helping you get back to sleep after waking up during the night rather than tossing and turning.
Reduce your screen time. Many people have reported an increase in screen time over lockdown. This isn't surprising as we haven't been able to leave the house and continue with our busy schedules as much as before! But screen time is directly correlated with anxiety so it is important to at least be aware of what you're reading and set boundaries with yourself. Timing is also critical, blue light from screens before bedtime won't allow you to wind down ready for sleep. Aim to switch devices off at least an hour before bed to allow yourself to relax, try reading for a while instead.
Ensure you have as much of a normal schedule as possible. Our bodies love routine and any change or disruption often leads to an altered sleep pattern. Wake up around the same time every day, even on weekends. If you're now working from home still make the effort to get yourself up, ready and dressed for the day ahead and ensure you finish on time rather than working late into the evening. If you are able to, work from a separate study room or to help to balance your work life and home life without confusion. Get in some movement, outdoors is best for our mental health but if yoga on your kitchen floor is all you can manage then still make it happen! Try to avoid napping during the day, it reduces our sleepiness and come nighttime you won't get such a good quality sleep - it's a vicious cycle!
Everyone will suffer from sleep problems at some point in their lives but these problems should resolve themselves after a short period of time. Hopefully these suggestions will help but if you have been struggling to sleep well for months and it's having an impact on your day-to-day life, think about visiting your GP or contacting a sleep therapist to discuss further treatment. The CBT-I course ran by us at the South West Sleep Clinic is a proven treatment for insomnia and can be managed at a time convenient for you.