Sleep was chosen as the theme of Mental Health Awareness Week 2020 because millions of people report problems with sleeping – and evidence shows that this can have a significant impact on mental health.
If you’ve been finding it harder to get to sleep (or to stay asleep), then you may have noticed changes to your mood and productivity levels. Some people have also reported having longer, more vivid dreams since the start of the pandemic, causing them to feel tired when they wake up.
Although sleep issues can be frustrating and difficult to deal with, it’s important to remember that you are not alone. During lockdown, #cantsleep was seen trending on Twitter, as people came together to express their frustration at not being able to get a decent night’s sleep! However, the good news is that there are a few things you can try, to increase your chances of getting some proper rest.
Why is the pandemic affecting my sleep?
The impact of stress hormones on sleep
Everyone has different sleep cycles, and different factors that may affect their sleep. However, something that many of us find difficult to deal with is uncertainty. Generally, we like to have a reasonable idea about what the future may hold, and we get security from knowing that important things are taken care of – like our finances and our family. At present, many of us will be facing uncertainty in these areas, which can lead to feelings of stress and anxiety. This may include racing thoughts and a feeling of restlessness, which can stop the body relaxing enough to either fall asleep, or stay asleep. Rather than getting the urge to sleep, you may find yourself pacing back and forth, or cleaning your oven at 3am!
If you’re feeling stressed or anxious, then you may also find that you are able to get to sleep, but that when you do – you have long, intense dreams and still wake up tired. Currently, the question of ‘why we dream’ is still largely unanswered, but one common theory is that dreams are the body’s way of trying to work through difficult or complicated experiences of emotions. So, if you’re feeling particularly worried or anxious about the future, then these fears may manifest into disturbing or unsettling dreams – some of which may be recurring. The reason that we may wake up feeling tired when this happens is because during the dream phase of sleep (also known as REM), our stress hormones remain elevated. These stress hormones (such as cortisol) are involved in the fight or flight response that we feel when we’re afraid, and make it quite difficult to rest and relax!
The impact of cabin fever on sleep
“Cabin fever” is the term people use to describe how they feel when they are going stir crazy indoors and feel like they need to get out. We usually feel like this when we are no longer being stimulated by our surroundings, and/or when we feel trapped in them. This is usually when feelings of boredom and frustration set in, which can really affect our sleep if we take them to bed with us.
You might also find that the things that you associate with “home” outside of the coronavirus lockdown – such as friends/family, leisure activities and rest – have now been replaced by new activities like work and exercise. When this happens, we can enter a new state of “alertness” at home, making it harder to relax when the time comes. You may also find that if you are doing less physical activity throughout the day, then you simply aren’t tired enough to get to sleep at night.
The impact of sleep on mental health
The quality of our sleep can affect our emotions and how alert we feel throughout the day. If your sleep is suffering then you may feel tearful, irritable and/or unable to cope with everyday activities. Some people also experience frustration and/or a low mood, when they cannot give their all to these activities because they are too tired.
Mark Rowland, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation says, “Sleep is the unsung hero for our mental health. We want to start a national conversation about how we can all sleep better – and uncover the hidden mental health costs of the poor sleep that affects so many of us.”
8 tips for a better night’s sleep
1. Create a daily routine
If you’re finding it hard to stay at home during the coronavirus lockdown, then you aren’t the only one. Plenty of us have had to take our usual schedule – which may involve a host of different people and locations – and transform it into a workable schedule which takes place all under the same roof. But, fortunately modern technology has made it possible for us to create a home routine that mimics our old one, as closely as possible. For example, rather than visit your grandchildren every Wednesday, perhaps you can video call them instead, or instead of hitting the gym you can follow a home work-out video online.
By creating a daily and weekly schedule, you’ll hopefully be able to keep yourself busy enough that you’re distracted from any anxious thoughts. Routine is important for maintaining your circadian rhythm (also known as your body clock), which is responsible for things like your sleep cycle, eating patterns and hormone production. If you stick to sleeping and waking up at the same time each day, then you’ll help to keep your circadian rhythm on track, and sleep will hopefully become easier.
It can also be helpful to try and mimic your usual pre-lockdown bedtime routine as much as possible. For example, if you carry out a regular skin-care routine before bed or you tend to read a chapter of a book before turning out the light, then try to stick to these things even if the rest of your daily routine has changed. If you’ve been doing these things for many years, then it’s likely that your body will have begun to associate them with preparing to go to sleep, and still will.
2. Switch all electronic devices off 30 minutes before bed
Electronic devices like smartphones, TVs and laptops emit blue light; a short wavelength which stimulates sensors in the eyes to send signals to your brain’s internal clock. These signals suppress the natural production of melatonin – the hormone which helps you to feel sleepy.
During the day time, blue light is actually very helpful as it can help you to feel more alert and boost your mood and reaction times. Sunlight is the strongest producer of blue light, which is why we feel more productive during daylight hours (usually), and much sleepier once it gets darker in the evenings. But, too much artificial blue light at the wrong times can play havoc with your body clock.
For this reason it’s a good idea to switch all electronic devices off at least 30 minutes before your head hits the pillow, to give your melatonin levels a chance to rise. If you can’t do this, then it’s worth looking into your device settings, as many now have a blue light filter, which can decrease the amount of blue light being emitted. The other advantage of emitting less blue light, is that it can help make your phone less addictive – even during the day – as many of us are drawn to the blue light.from their screens.
3. Try to move your body every day
Exercise can be beneficial for sleep in a few ways. Firstly, when we are physically worn out, we will often get to sleep much quicker and stay asleep for longer. Exercise also increases the production of endorphins (our happy hormones), which helps to boost our mood and reduce stress. It’s generally much easier to sleep if you aren’t contending with high levels of stress hormones at bedtime, such as cortisol and adrenaline.
Additionally, any sort of exercise that raises your body temperature, can also contribute towards a better night’s sleep (if done at the right time). This could include activities such as a brisk walk, a 10 minute aerobic workout or giving your kitchen floor a good scrub. A good workout can keep your body temperature raised for about four to five hours. After this your core temperature starts to decrease and you may feel sleepy as a result. So, if you aim to do an afternoon workout each day, then you could help to set yourself up for that sleepy feeling around the time that you’re thinking about winding down for the evening and going to bed. Generally speaking, it’s better to avoid an evening workout, as you’ll be heating yourself up very close to the time when you should be starting to cool down in preparation for sleep. However, if you find that the evening time is the only time you can work out, then try having a cool shower afterwards to help bring your body temperature back down faster.
4. Set yourself “worry time” and stick to it
During this period of uncertainty, it’s completely understandable that you may be worried about the future. However, it can help to take charge of that worry by limiting the amount of time you attribute to it. It can be tricky to get rid of worry altogether, especially if it’s unclear when or how a problem will resolve itself. But, by setting yourself allocated “worry time” each day you can start to control how much of your day is affected by it – and hopefully lessen the burden of some of those worries at bedtime.
Try to set yourself two 15-minute worry slots each day where you can set out all your worries and/or anxious thoughts. Some people find that it helps to write them down. Use this time to allow yourself to acknowledge all the things that are bothering you, and identify which of these you can control and which you can’t. It’s important that outside of worry time, you are able to put any worries that you can’t control out of your mind and focus only on the things that you can control. When the time’s up, close your journal if you’ve used one. Or, if you haven’t – imagine yourself putting a lid on your worries and placing them on a shelf, somewhere high up where you can no longer see them. If you find any worries sneaking back in after this point, then picture yourself forcing that lid back down and remind yourself that you can get them out later – during your second worry slot of the day.
Often, we busy ourselves during the day and then when we stop and lie down to sleep at night, our minds fill with worry – and suddenly we’re wide awake! It’s unreasonable to expect that we can just banish all worries altogether in one fell swoop, but by using this set worry time, we can hopefully control when and how we worry, and avoid going to bed with a mind full of racing thoughts.
5. Get some fresh air and sunlight everyday
Sunlight plays an important role in making sure that our circadian rhythm (or our body clock), is working well. Sensors in our eyes detect light and dark in our environments and adjust our body clock accordingly. It can be difficult to spend all day in a dark room and then expect your body to instinctively know when it’s time to wake up and when it’s time to sleep. Although we can’t get outside as much as we’d like to at the moment, you can still help yourself to get as much sunlight as possible by opening your curtains and blinds fully and spending more time in the lighter rooms of your home. This will all help to make the distinction between light and dark much clearer, giving your body clearer signals about when it’s time to wake and sleep.
Scientists also say that sleeping with a window open can help you to sleep deeper and longer, by lowering carbon dioxide levels in the room. This will also prevent you from becoming too warm, as we tend to sleep better when our core temperature is able to drop by a degree or two at night.
So next time, you’re struggling to sleep, considering opening a window – you might be surprised at the difference it makes. Just be sure to have an extra blanket on hand, in case you get a bit chilly!
6. Try not to work or exercise in the same room that you sleep in
When you’re doing the majority of your daily tasks at home, it can be helpful to create some boundaries so that you don’t begin to associate your sleep space with work – as this can make relaxing in it difficult at bedtime.
Try to make sure that you are doing activities such as work and exercise away from your bedroom if you can, as this will help your brain to maintain the association of your bed and your bedroom with sleep.
7. Consider listening to some guided sleep meditation
If the reason that you’re struggling to sleep at night is because you’ve got a lot on your mind and you find your thoughts racing when your head hits the pillow – then you could try listening to some guided sleep meditation. This can help you to stay mindful and is a powerful process that can help you to relax. A soothing voice will often help you to bring your mind to the present moment by focusing on your breathing and visualising being somewhere you feel relaxed – for example, on a beach, where you can focus on nothing other than the waves rolling in.
This may not work for everyone and you may need to experiment with different types of sleep meditation to see which works best for you. Some people have a preference over the type of voice leading the meditation, and the type of visualizations you’ll be asked to do. If you want to test the waters, then YouTube is a great place to find a whole range of guided sleep meditation videos.
8. Keep an eye on your caffeine intake
If you’re spending more time at home, then you may have found that you’re drinking more tea and coffee than you usually would. Whilst you don’t necessarily need to cut caffeine out altogether to get a good night’s sleep, it’s still important to be aware of how much you’re drinking – and to avoid drinking it too close to bedtime. It might help to give yourself a cut off point; for example no caffeine after 4pm, to see whether this makes a difference to your quality of sleep. Everyone is different and some people are affected by caffeine more than others, so it’s up to you to find out what works best for you.
We hope that some of the tips in this article will help you to get a better night’s sleep, but you may also have some of your own ideas. These are unusual and uncertain times, so if you’re not sleeping as well as you usually are, and in turn struggling to be as productive as you usually would be – then don’t beat yourself up about it. Be kind to yourself and do what you can, keeping in mind that this period of uncertainty won’t last forever.