The Coronavirus Pandemic And Sleep: Protect Yourself With The Rest You Need

The pandemic caused by the coronavirus changed our way of life in a lightning fast minute, and has forced us to alter our lifestyles, as we became locked down and forced to shelter in place, our economy brought to a standstill, and for many of us, our careers and gig work are threatened, if not hanging in the balance.

Aging parents are threatened with early deaths, venturing out to the grocery store feels like suiting up for a walk on some alien planet, and the level of anxiety and stress we feel has soared, with many on the front lines already battling PTSD as they roll the dice before each and every shift. 

We need to focus on keeping ourselves healthy by eating right, exercising, and most importantly- getting the restorative sleep and rest we need to keep our bodies fully cocked and loaded in case the virus come to our door.

Sleep is critical to our body ability to fight off depression, anxiety, and stress, and we need it to be able to keep our immune system and organ systems working at peak performance.  During sleep, our body repairs itself, makes hormones and new blood cells, removes and filters waste from our brain and vital organs, and essentially reboots itself day in and day out. 

Failure to get the restorative and reinvigorating sleep we need, and get it in the right quantity, too, is a life and death game changer. Whether or not you had sleep issues before the pandemic, or there was sudden onset as the result of the stress of lock down, there are many things you can do to both maintain and even improve the quality of your sleep hygiene, your sleep environment, and the quality of rest that everyone else is getting in your home as well.

Millions of people in our country suffered from sleep disorders well before the coronavirus slipped silently into our nation, but the pandemic has created entirely new challenges for people with no previous history of sleep problems.

Of course, not everyone is affected in the same way, or to the same degree. Those who are sick with the virus, and the health care professionals on the front lines are receiving the largest direct impact from the pandemic, but every American has experienced disruptions and sudden changes that directly affect not only our ability to sleep, but our schedules, our circadian rhythms, and our biology have been completely disrupted as well.

We’re not eating the same, we are typically staying up later, if we are working remotely from home, that creates added stress too, and our usual interactions in society and with friends and family can have a tremendous impact on how we wind down in the evening and prepare ourselves for sleep.

A Pandemic Creates Disruption In Our Brains On An Apocalyptic Scale

Social distancing, business and school shutdowns, enforced quarantines, zoom meetings and remotely working, all bring profound changes to our regular routines for people of all ages and walks of life. 

  • It can be challenging to adjust to a new daily schedule or lack of a schedule especially when there is little or no adjustment phase.

  • Being aware of time of day, and even the date, can be impossible because we no longer have markers or  “anchors” such as  dropping kids at school, the routing of arriving at our workplace, attending regularly scheduled social events, going to the gym, taking classes, hobbies, and more.

  • Perhaps the most difficult sleep affector might be the amount of time we have to spend indoors,  especially if your home has low levels of natural light, reducing light-based cues for wakefulness and sleep, known as zeitgebers, absolutely crucial to our circadian rhythm.

  • If you are not working at the moment or your weekly hours have been decreased due to the pandemic, you may suddenly become a long-sleeper. Sleeping more than seven to eight hours per night can not only  make waking up on time much more difficult, it also puts you into a groggy state where your mind is not sharply focused, and this fog like sensation can last for hours, if not the entire day. 

Anxiety, Stress, And PTSD As A Result Of Poor Sleep

The pandemic has created never before seen levels of anxiety and stress, created by both fact based and media hyped reasons. Naturally, many people fear being exposed to the coronavirus because they don’t want to get sick or infect other family members. Most people have close friends or family who are older or in high-risk groups because of preexisting conditions, spurring worries about their health and safety. 

Economic concerns are affecting nearly everyone as well. As economic activity stalls and job losses mount,  we all worry about income, depleted savings, and basic survival skills.

Because of the unknowns, such as how much the disease will spread, whether hospitals can survive the crisis, how long quarantines will last, when the economy can recover, we are awash in unprecedented anxiety that disrupts sleep as a racing mind keeps us tossing and turning, instead of enjoying the restorative rest we need.

Even our once comfortable mattress can seem suddenly uncomfortable, no longer the sanctuary we looked forward to every evening as we retired and nestled in, signaling to our body and brain that it was time to rest. People are shopping for new mattresses in record numbers, trying to do anything to improve their sleep hygiene, now understanding that sleep is critically important to their well being and perhaps their survival.  

Many of us have contacted our health care professionals for help with sleep, and the number of Ambien, Xanax, Klonopin, and other stress induced conditions brought about by the pandemic has skyrocketed. For a short term solution, these medications can be of benefit, but for long term solutions, they are dangerous and can have serious effects on your mind and body.

How Sleep Is Affected By Depression and Isolation

The current pandemic can bring about isolation and depression that may be even worse for people who have a loved one who has been diagnosed with the coronavirus or has passed away from COVID-19. Grief and depression can be made even worse by isolation at home, and both are known to have the potential to cause significant sleeping problems. 

Many families are under very severe stress as a result of the coronavirus. Canceled trips, isolation from friends, and being confined to a small space for lengths of time can be destructive to anyone. The experience offers keen insights into the daily lives of prison inmates, forced to occupy small cells, or a caged tiger, pacing back and forth to vent depression and stress. Maintaining work-from-home obligations or managing children who are accustomed to being at school has been highly stressful on mothers especially, generating stress and discord that have been shown to be solid barriers to sleep.

Excess Screen Time Can Completely Destroy Our Circadian Rhythm

Whether it’s checking the news on your phone, joining a Zoom with family, binge-watching Netflix, increasing hours spent on social media, or simply being exposed to blue light while working-from-home, forced quarantines can mean a dramatic increase in screen time. 

Excess screen time, especially late into the night can have a huge impact on sleep. Not only can it stimulate the brain making it hard to wind down, blue light tricks it into thinking that it is still daylight outside, which prevents the brain from releasing melatonin, a hormone that the body makes to help us sleep. Our circadian rhythm gets completely screwed up, reducing the quality of our sleep and the altering natural mechanism that allows our body to get the required number of hours we need.

Stress-Related Fatigue

The chronic, ongoing stress of living through a sudden pandemic can lead to a plethora of physical symptoms, including persistent headaches, memory lapses, and digestive problems. Stress-related fatigue seems to be another common side effect. The Mayo Clinic defines fatigue as “a nearly constant state of weariness that increases over time, reducing energy, motivation and concentration.” Even if you receive an adequate amount of sleep at night, experiencing consistent mental or emotional fatigue can still leave you feeling tired, unrested, and not motivated to face your day when you wake up.

Why is Sleep Especially Important During This Pandemic? 

Sleep is a critical biological process, and though it might fall neatly tucked behind breathing oxygen in importance, the lack of sleep or even subtle impacts on sleep can create life altering issues that can shorten your lifespan or create peripheral problems that can be fatal. Shift workers know this well, and many can testify that other facets of your life are hugely affected by the lack of sleep

While we are dealing with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, though, sleep has become even more essential because of its wide-ranging benefits for physical and mental health. 

  • Sleep empowers a robust immune system. Restorative, uninterrupted sleep strengthens our body’s defenses, and studies have even found that poor sleep can make some vaccines less effective. 

  • Sleep enhances brain function. Our mind works more efficiently when we get quality sleep, contributing to complex thinking, learning, memory, and effective decision-making. For adults and children adapting to work and school at home, a solid night’s sleep can help them stay sharp. 

  • Sleep improves mood. Lack of sleep can make a person irritable, drive down their energy level, and cause the onset of clinical depression.  

  • Sleep improves mental health. Besides depression, studies have found that poor sleep is linked with mental health conditions like anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). 

Experts agree that getting regularly scheduled, deep, restorative sleep improves virtually all aspects of health, which is why we should be keenly aware of the quality of our sleep during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Effective Guidelines To Getting the Sleep You Need During the COVID-19 Outbreak

Even though it might seem impossible to resume a normal sleep pattern during the most disruptive event in modern history, we can offer some solid guidelines using a handful of steps that can promote better sleep during the coronavirus pandemic. They may not pay off in one or two days, but it’s important that you stick with the suggestions and give it a few days. Make establishing your sleep regimen and modifying your sleep hygiene your number one priority if you can, and you will see results.

Establishing a routine for a very specific bedtime can have a profound effect on your mind and enable falling asleep easier and more likely to occur. Also, setting a specific time can facilitate a sense of  well being and stability. If you should schedule one thing in your life and refuse to deviate it from it by even a few minutes, it must be your bed time.

It’s easier for your mind and body to acclimate to a consistent sleep schedule, which is why health experts have long recommended avoiding major variation in your bedtime and the rituals you associate with it.

Your Sleep Schedule And Routine Should Contain The Following Elements:

  • Wake-Up Time: Set your alarm if you typically do not awaken at the same time consistently,  and have a fixed time to get every day started. 

  • Wind-Down Time: This is an important time to relax and get ready for bed. It may include activities such as light reading, stretching, and meditating along with preparations for bed like putting on pajamas and brushing your teeth. Avoid blue light and playing on devices once in bed. Given the stress of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s smart to give yourself extra wind-down time each night. 

  • Bedtime: Pick a consistent time to actually turn out the lights and try to fall asleep. Remember that only two things should happen in bed: sleep and sex.   

In addition to time spent sleeping and preparing to get into bed, it can be helpful to establish steady routines to provide time cues, or zeitgebers, throughout the day, including: 

  • Showering and getting dressed even if you aren’t leaving the house.

  • Eating meals at the same time each day, particularly breakfast and dinners. 

  • Establishing set times for work and exercise. 

These zeitgebers, as we call them in the sleep business, are the natural and fabricated cues that our minds respond to which help sleep induction (falling asleep)

Reserve Your Bed For Sleep And Sex

Sleep experts have clearly established and preach that your mattress is meant for two things: sleep and sex. Screen time, TV watching, and other electronic interaction should be done in another room entirely. emphasize the importance of creating an association in your mind between your bed and sleep. For this reason, they recommend that sleep and sex be the only activities that take place in your bed. 

This means that remote office time shouldn’t be working from your mattress. It also means strictly avoiding bringing a laptop into bed to watch a movie or series. Lose the laptop pillow that you have on your bed.

On a typical night, if you find that you’re having a hard time sleeping, don’t spend more than 20 minutes tossing and turning. Instead, get out of bed and do something relaxing in very low light, and then head back to bed to try to fall asleep. Don’t eat thirty minutes prior to bedtime, and use dental floss ritualistically before bed.

Washing your sheets frequently, replacing your pillows, and making your bed methodically in the morning establishes those markers that you brain is filing in a linear fashion to establish rituals.

During The Day, Get Exposure To Natural Daylight

Exposure to natural light plays an important role in helping our bodies regulate sleep in a healthy way. As you deal with disruptions to daily life, you may need to take steps so that light-based cues have a positive effect on your circadian rhythm.     

  • Get outside at least a short period of time every day. Ten minutes is sufficient, and exposing some skin for just a few minutes can revitalize your body, peak your Vitamin D levels, and even if the sun is hidden by clouds, the power of natural light still has positive effects on circadian rhythm and will help establish those markers to help you adjust to your sleep schedule ritual. Many people find outdoor time is most beneficial in the morning, and as an added bonus, it’s an opportunity to get fresh air, which has some atmospheric ozone built in. 

  • Open windows and blinds to let light into your home during the day, as much as possible. 

  • Be mindful of your screen time. The blue light produced by electronic devices, such as mobile phones, tablets, and computers can interfere with the body’s natural sleep-promoting mechanisms. As much as possible, avoid using these devices for an hour before bed. You can also use device settings or special apps that reduce or filter blue light. 

Be Cautious About Lengthy Naps

If you’re home all day, you may be tempted to take more naps. While a short power nap early in the afternoon can be useful to some people, it’s best to avoid long naps or naps later in the day that can backfire your nighttime sleep program. 

Stay Physically Active

It’s easy to overlook physical exercise with everything happening around you, but regular daily activity can make you feel more energized, drastically improve your mood, and improve the quality and depth of your sleep. Aerobic exercise has ben shown to help you spend more time in REM sleep, too, that restorative piece of the sleep dynamic where your brain is busy repairing and rebooting. 

If you can go for a solid mile walk while maintaining a safe distance from other people, that’s the best option. If not, there is a wealth of resources online for all types and levels of exercise.  Even stretching routines can help reinvigorate your body. Many gyms, yoga, and dance studios have offered  live-streaming free classes during our mandatory quarantine. 

Keep Social Connections Active

It might not seem important to your sleep ritual, but maintaining connectivity can reduce stress and its harmful effects on mood and sleep. 

Despite all the bad news that floods our minds every day, try to find some positive stories, such as how people are supporting one another through the pandemic. You can use technology to maintain relationships with friends and family in spite of social distancing.

Use Established Relaxation Techniques

Finding ways to relax can be an important tool in improving your sleep. Deep breathing, stretching, yoga, mindfulness meditation, calming music, and quiet reading are just a few examples of relaxation techniques that you can incorporate into your routines. If you’re not sure where to get started, you may want to explore some apps like Headspace and Calm, or get into watching ASMR videos and find a great channel. Some YouTube ASMR artists I recommend include Creative Calm ASMR, Dr.T ASMR, River ASMR, and Tirar A DeGuello ASMR. Each has a different appeal, and if you get into it, you will find that ASMR is more effective than two Ambien tablets.

Another relaxation strategy during this pandemic is to avoid becoming overwhelmed by coronavirus-saturated media. For example, you can try techniques including: 

  • Bookmarking one or two trusted news sites and visiting them only during a limited, pre-set amount of time each day. Stay middle of the road if you can.

  • Cutting down the total time that you spend scrolling on social media. If you want a hand in this effort, a number of apps can monitor and even block your time on social media sites or apps each day.

  • Scheduling phone or video calls with friends and family and agreeing in advance to focus on topics other than the coronavirus. 

Watch What You Eat and Drink

Keeping a healthy diet can promote good sleep. In particular, be cautious with the intake of alcohol and caffeine, especially later in the day, as both can disrupt the quantity and quality of your sleep. 

Contact Your Doctor if Necessary

If you have severe or worsening sleep or other health problems, it is advisable to be in touch with your doctor. Many doctors are increasing availability via email or telemedicine to allow patients to discuss concerns without having to physically visit their office.