Emerson M. Wickwire, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Medicine, University of Maryland School of Medicine; Director, Insomnia Program, University of Maryland Medical Center – Midtown Campus
Sleep, along with nutrition and exercise, is a key pillar of physical and mental health. Under normal circumstances, an adequate amount of healthy sleep refreshes our bodies, clears our minds, and lifts our moods. But we are not living under normal circumstances.
Modern sleep disruptions
The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted many (if not most) aspects of our daily routines. Social distancing has reduced human connection and support, we are spending more time than ever in front of blue-light emitting screens, and to be alive on planet Earth is to breathe in a certain kind of anxious unease. Each of these new realities makes us vulnerable to poor sleep.
Effects of poor sleep
Not getting enough quality sleep increases risk for obesity, diabetes, heart attack, and premature death; depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress; motor vehicle crashes associated with drowsy driving; and costly accidents and errors in the workplace. When we do not get enough sleep, our bodies and brains simply cannot function at their best.
In addition to these well-documented consequences of poor sleep, multiple scientific studies in animals and humans demonstrate that poor sleep alters immune function and can reduce the effectiveness of vaccines. Given the global imperative to develop an effective vaccine for the coronavirus, healthy sleep is perhaps more important now than ever.
How to get better sleep
So, what can you do to enhance self-care through improved sleep? First, know how much sleep you need. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that adults should sleep seven or more hours per night on a regular basis to promote optimal health, productivity, and daytime alertness. Other tips for better sleep:
- Maintain a consistent sleep routine. Control your new routine at home. Establish and maintain a consistent sleep/wake-up schedule every day of the week. Develop a soothing pre-sleep wind-down routine to help prepare your body and mind for sleep.
- Create a comfortable sleeping environment: Make sure your bedroom is separated from your workspace and conducive to sleep. Keep the room cool, dark, quiet, and uncluttered. Try using an eye mask, or a white noise machine to block noise or distractions. Wear pajamas only for sleep, not throughout the day.
- Minimize technology: Light in the blue spectrum suppresses melatonin, a key sleep-related hormone. Turn off your electronics at least one hour before bedtime. Place your devices outside your bedroom, so that you can avoid temptation to check messages or read stress-inducing news.
- Minimize consumption of news and social commentary. Pundits are paid handsomely to engage and enrage. Minimize consumption of news and choose trusted sources wisely.
- Relax your body and mind before bed. Try journaling, meditation, prayer, or deep breathing to help relax the mind and prepare the body for restful sleep.
- Increase your positive outlook. Redirect your attention to focus on “what is” instead of dwelling on “what if.” Or, write a gratitude list before bed. Reflecting on the little things can have a positive impact on your stress and overall happiness.
Stress, worry, and uncertainty can cause you to have difficulty falling asleep or lead to restless nights. If you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep through the night, do not try harder to sleep. Instead, get out of bed and engage in a relaxing, non-stimulating activity. Read a peaceful book, practice deep breathing, or try meditation. Do not turn on the TV or pick up your phone. Only return to your bed when you are highly confident that you are ready to sleep. Visit SleepEducation.org for more information on how to improve your sleep during these difficult times.