Cori McMahon, V.P. of Clinical Services, Tridiuum
Why Quality Sleep is Hard to Come by These Days
Now, more than ever, sleep is crucial to our health, but good, restorative sleep is likely harder to come by given the significant shift in daily routines, expectations, and stress resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the National Sleep Foundation, the drastic changes brought about by COVID-19 have resulted in sleep problems for individuals who previously had no sleep issues at all. It’s not just our healthcare workers who are affected. One of the most common factors affecting sleep seems to be worry — worry about our health, our loved ones, financial issues, and a general sense of uncertainty and lack of control. Additionally, as many of us have lost the consistency of routine in our daily schedules, we have also lost those strong connections to various times of the day that our bodies rely upon. These important time connections include our commute to work, a regular lunchtime, the ability to go to the gym, and leisure time after dinner. While we can still maintain a schedule of sorts, it likely looks quite a bit different these days. This invariably eliminates the regular cues our body is used to receiving. Our sleep-wake cycle is altered as a result of these shifts in our regular routines.
The most common sleep problem for Americans before COVID-19 was insomnia. While sleep medicine professionals agree that COVID-19 can be easily blamed for increased sleep difficulty, some are also encouraging us to take advantage of this time to specifically address the problem, noting that we may have the opportunity to dedicate more time to self-care while working from home. While we may or may not have more available hours in the day (or night), it is certainly very timely to attend to our wellness needs right now. Improved sleep quality can result in better overall mood, improved ability to concentrate, and enhanced memory and immune system functioning.
Where do we start? How do we improve our sleep?
Experts suggest that we do our best to:
- Maintain a consistent schedule around bedtime and waking time in the morning.
- Reserve our beds for sleep only, making sure to watch TV and do work elsewhere…even though it may be tempting to take a Zoom meeting from the comfort of our covers.
- Refrain from drinking too much caffeine, particularly close to bedtime.
- Set aside time for physical activity and get adequate exposure to natural light during the day as this helps set our circadian rhythm. This goes for kids as well. Specific to shelter-in-place orders and the fact that many children are engaged in distance learning, it is even more crucial that parents and children alike have regular exposure to daylight and exercise.
Worry Less in Bed
One common challenge resulting from worry is lying in bed, feeling physically exhausted while continuing to toss and turn. We are most successful at sleep when we associate our bed with relaxation. If worry has you lying awake, try getting out of bed and doing something that requires only minor stimulation, such as reading, until you feel relaxed enough to get back into bed. Based on basic learning principles, if we come to associate our bed with unrest and anxiety, then we will “learn” the behavior of being awake while in bed. (The Morning Call) If worry seems to be the predominant culprit to loss of sleep, it may be helpful to set aside time for worry during the day — to actually schedule it in so that it is given a special and separate space. It may be helpful to make a list of worries or to write them in a journal such that they can be “removed” from your mind and set aside. Closer to bedtime, it is important to wind down with a relaxing activity such as talking with a close friend or loved one, spending time with a pet, meditating, or taking a shower.
While sleep problems often subside as the anxiety-provoking situation decreases or ends, the issue may persist. According to Dr. Alexandria Muench, a psychologist with the Chronobiology & Sleep Institute of the University of Pennsylvania, three or more nights of poor sleep over a two-week period is enough to warrant a discussion with a medical provider. The diagnostic criteria for insomnia includes difficulty falling asleep three days per week for three months. (The Morning Call) Whether medication or behavioral sleep management (or a combination thereof) is warranted, several interventions can be employed to improve sleep. Our overall health and wellness depend upon it.