The urge to check (and recheck) the never-ending stream of news is stronger than usual these days and our brains are constantly running overtime. Anxiety and stress dredged up by the election, racial injustice and the coronavirus pandemic can lead to poor sleep ― especially for those with diagnosed or suspected mental health issues.
“We’re both too connected to the outside world and constantly knowing what’s happening, but also feeling really isolated from the parts of the outside world we actually need to help with our stress, like friends and family, and have less pleasurable activities during the day to help us relax and experience joy. And this affects our sleep,” said Jade Wu, a licensed clinical psychologist and sleep researcher in Durham, North Carolina.
All these changes in routine and normalcy undermine our nightly zzz’s, according to Wu. Between the upending of our daily routines and the constant fretting about the future, many of us are in a stress-sleep cycle that’s hard to break.
And that can have damaging consequences: The physical effects of poor sleep are far-reaching, from a weakened immune response to cardiovascular problems. While asleep, our brain completes functions that it only can at rest ― making room to absorb new information and skills, building creative capacity, and solidifying beneficial memories. Plus, being deprived of sleep can exacerbate anxiety and make it trickier to regulate our emotions during waking hours, further adding to the stress we may already carry from this particularly hellish year.
So, how can we reclaim our sleep when our minds are in chronic overdrive? We asked sleep experts to share their personal strategies for getting some shut-eye this year.
First, recognize that interrupted sleep is a normal response to 2020.
Sarah Silverman, a sleep psychologist in Tampa, Florida, said it helps to remember that waking up during the night is a normal response to stress. So it makes sense that many of us are probably sleeping less than usual.
Acknowledge that this is the problem, Silverman said, instead of immediately getting frustrated. Reminding herself that this is a common problem right now eases her anxiety a bit so it doesn’t add to the stress already waking her up.
Make your bedroom a location for sleep only ― not a place where you work, exercise or check news.
People are spending a lot more time either in the bedroom or someplace near it. We’re using our sleep space as a home office, gym or gathering area ― and that can have unintended effects on our brains.
Even if you aren’t bringing your laptop into bed, it can be very stimulating to have your desk in the bedroom, because your desk is where you work, socialize and scarf down a quick lunch, said Kimberly Truong, the founder of California-based Earlybird Health and a board-certified sleep physician.
“We might also be having important financial conversations with our spouses in bed, because our kids are doing online school in the next room,” Wu added, or we might be doomscrolling in bed more frequently.
What your mind once considered a resting place now becomes associated with negative news and wakeful activities such as being productive, creative and hardworking. If you can, try to do other activities outside your bedroom and keep your bedroom designated for rest.
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Wake up at the same time each day and only crawl into bed at night when you’re ready to go to sleep.
Silverman, Truong and Wu all wake up at the same time each morning to set their bodies up to be sleepy at night. On some days you may take longer to feel sleepy, Wu said, but this is normal, particularly if you didn’t do much activity during the day.
“I always keep in the back of my mind that eventually my sleep system is going to kick in and allow me to sleep,” said Silverman.
Instead of tossing and turning because you aren’t ready to sleep at your usual 10 p.m. bedtime, she recommended climbing into bed only when you feel like your body is really ready to fall asleep.
Move your body a little bit each day in a way that feels good (bonus points if you do this outside).
During the day, Silverman, Wu and Truong said they prepare for sleep by spending time in the sunlight and being physically active.
“We release endorphins when we exercise and this boosts our mood, which helps us become more able to weather the stressors we encounter, and that makes us better able to sleep,” Wu said, noting that moving your body also builds up your sleep drive, as your brain will want to rest after an active day.
Exposing your body to as much sunlight as possible is also important, Wu said. The amount of light exposure you get during the day preps your brain for sleep when it gets dark. In the shorter, colder days of fall and winter, it can be more difficult to get sunlight, but even a short walk when the sun is out or sitting in the backyard can be helpful. And if sunlight is really scant, Truong suggested trying light box therapy in the morning to ensure your internal body clock stays healthy.
Keep to a routine of regular meals.
Truong noted that having three to four meals at set times during the day can help with getting proper rest.
This is mostly because eating regular meals keeps our circadian rhythm synchronized to the passage of the day. Your brain knows when it’s morning, afternoon and night based on what meals you’re eating. When meal patterns become haphazard, it can lessen the distinction between day (or wakeful hours) and night (or sleeping hours).
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Figure out the difference between your body being sleepy and your body being tired.
“The causes of sleepiness look very different from the causes of feeling tired,” Silverman said. For instance, your body might feel tired during the day due to mental fatigue from the barrage of negative information. But according to Silverman, this does not necessarily translate into being able to fall asleep. And trying to sleep could backfire.
“If you try to force yourself to sleep when you’re tired but not sleepy, you’ll end up fighting against your own body and getting more stressed out,” Wu said.
Learning to differentiate between tiredness and sleepiness helps you give your body what it needs. “When you’re tired, you feel exhausted or depleted, and the cure for that is rest,” Wu said. This could be taking a shower, going for a walk, doing breathing exercises or enjoying a TV show or book.
“When you’re sleepy, your eyes are rolling and hard to keep open, your head is nodding, you can’t concentrate, and the cure for that is to sleep,” Wu said.
If it is already nighttime, then start your nighttime sleep. If you’re incredibly sleepy during the day, Wu is a believer in taking a 30-minute catnap, as long as you don’t start using these naps to catch up on lost nighttime sleep. “If you’re having a lot of frequent nighttime trouble, I would cut out the naps,” she said.
Get out of bed if you start to have anxious thoughts.
“As we carry on with our day, there’s a lot on our plates and we’re always on the go. It’s not usually until nighttime [that] things quiet down and you’re left with yourself and your thoughts,” Truong noted. “Having very stimulating thoughts or high anxiety thoughts leads to a stress response, such as increased heart rate and sweaty palms, that makes it difficult for one to fall asleep.”
If you’re lying in bed when this happens, it’s easy for the bed to become associated with anxiety and stress. To break this pattern, Silverman said, “It’s better to physically get out of bed and ideally go to another room to have this thought process take place somewhere else.”
Truong suggested journaling to capture the anxious thoughts you’ve had throughout the day before you carry them with you into the bedroom. For 30 to 40 minutes after dinner, she free-writes, jotting down any thoughts that come to mind without any judgment.
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Engage in mindless activities, like folding clothes or doing dishes, before you go to sleep.
Experiment with cutting out scrolling through messages and news feeds at night, Wu said ― especially if you’ve noticed you feel tense and start worrying when your head hits the pillow.
Having a consistent evening routine of enjoyable but mindless activities in the couple of hours before bedtime can support sleep.
Wu likes to prepare her baby’s clothes and bottles for the next day. “Doing something rote that requires me to use my hands, such as folding clothes or preparing baby bottles, is almost mesmerizing and meditative for me,” she said.
She also finds that she falls asleep within 20 minutes of starting to listen to an audiobook that she has already heard before or that isn’t otherwise difficult to put down.
Meditation and relaxation techniques are another sleep aid. Truong suggested doing gentle stretches or body scanning, which involves mentally checking in with your body from head to toe, one area at a time, while breathing in and out.
Visualization meditation, which has a number of variations, can also help. You might visualize yourself in a place that evokes feelings of joy or peace while engaging in deep breathing or picture an image that assists you in letting go of anxious thoughts. Truong gave an example of picturing each anxious thought, one at a time, falling on a leaf floating down a river, and the river taking it away.