/ Body/ Covid-Somnia: How to Sleep Better and Protect Your Mental Health During a Poor Sleep Pandemic
Having trouble sleeping these days? It looks like you’re not alone.
There’s been a worldwide trend toward sleep disruption since the onset of the pandemic. According to the Kaiser Foundation, more than a third of Americans report having trouble sleeping because of issues related to COVID-19. And in Canada, over half of participants in one study reported having significant sleep disturbances since the pandemic first began.
It’s such a significant phenomenon that experts have even given it a name: COVID-somnia.
The potential causes of this trend are seemingly endless: disruptions of routine due to lockdowns and heightened anxiety over the well-being of our loved ones. The list goes on. And even now, as we transition back to a more ‘normal’ kind of life, we may see a new set of sleep-jolting worries and routine disruptions arise – from back to the office anxiety to concerns around in-person socializing. But whatever the cause, one thing’s for sure: not getting enough sleep will lower your resilience and take a toll on your mental health.
“Sleep is incredibly important for our mental well-being,” says Karma Stanley, a Registered Practical Nurse and Care Coordinator with Inkblot. “A poor night’s sleep can lead to poor memory, poor concentration, heightened irritability and poor emotional regulation. In addition, studies show indisputable evidence that there’s a direct link between chronic insomnia and the risk of developing depression or anxiety.”
The problem, Stanley notes, is unfortunately twofold: sleep disruptions may lead to mental health issues and mental health issues can also lead to sleep disruptions.
“Those who are struggling with mental health challenges or more severe mental health issues often encounter issues with sleep. So we want to make sure that we’re attending to both needs. We want to make sure that we’re getting good quality sleep so that we don’t have symptoms like irritability and poor emotion regulation, but we also want to make sure that we’re taking care of our mental health needs so they don’t impact our sleep.”
In order to protect your mental health – and not become a victim of COVID-somnia – Stanley shares her expert tips for maximizing your quality z’s.
Keep a consistent sleep schedule. Turns out our parents were right. If you remember being sent to bed at the same time every evening, it wasn’t just punishment. Keeping a consistent sleep schedule can help stabilize your body clock, making sure your body’s circadian rhythm is aligned with sunrise and sunset and aiding in long-term sleep quality.
“Having a routine around your sleep schedule is really critical to deepening your quality of sleep,” says Stanley. “In addition to going to bed at the same time each day, you should also try to wake at the same time too. People often think, ‘Oh it’s the weekend. I’ll sleep in!’ But changing your waking times can disrupt your sleep rhythm, so you want to be consistent.”
Have a calming bedtime routine. These days many of us are facing more stress than usual due to pressures related to the pandemic. However, stress is built to interrupt our sleep patterns: by releasing hormones like adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine, it raises our alertness and heart rate and puts us in fight or flight mode. This response is great when you’re about to be eaten by a panther but when you’re trying to get some shut-eye not so much.
Stanley suggests trying to incorporate some routines that can help facilitate calmness. “This looks different for everyone. It could be something like having a cup of caffeine-free tea, doing a few yoga poses or reading a book before bed,” she says.
But whatever you do – put away that phone.
“The blue light from the screen on your phone causes overstimulation and tricks your body into thinking that it’s time to wake up. So if you want a good quality sleep, you’ll need to turn all screens off at an appropriate time before bed.” Late night scrollers – the Tik-Tok dances and Insta memes can wait for tomorrow.
Get moving. Exercise is one of nature’s greatest sleep aids. A long run or even just a busy day of doing chores around the house can tire you out and increase your sleep drive.
“Exercise releases serotonin which helps in the production of melatonin – our natural sleep hormone,” says Stanley. But you want to be careful about when you’re getting your activity in. “The best time to exercise is earlier in the day because it causes that increase in the melanin later in the day. Be mindful not to do any vigorous exercise less than two hours before going to bed. It can stimulate your nervous system and raise your heart rate – which will actually impair your ability to go to sleep.”
Pay attention to the temperature of your room. Ever woken up shivering in the middle of the night? Or drenched in sweat desperate to throw off a cover? If you want to maximize your chances of having an uninterrupted night’s sleep, take a look at your thermostat.
“When you get tired, your temperature starts to drop before you drift toward REM sleep,” says Stanely. “For the best quality sleep, you want to make sure your room isn’t too hot or too cold. This will help mimic the body’s natural temperature that occurs while sleeping. Try keeping your room around 16 to 23 degrees celsius.”
Have a small snack. According to Stanley, that old wives tale about having a warm glass of milk to help you get to sleep is actually true.
“The science behind it is that foods that contain calcium, magnesium or tryptophan help the body produce that melatonin. So it’s helpful to have something like a glass of milk, a banana or oatmeal,” she says.
But this doesn’t mean you can eat a curry buffet or an entire chocolate cake before bed. Stanley warns that foods that are heavy, too sugary or too spicy can cause your body to spend more energy on digestion – and less on helping your brain fall asleep.
For a list of foods that can support healthy sleep hygiene, Stanley recommends checking out this list.
Use your bed for sleep and sleep only. COVID-19 has blurred the boundaries between work and home – and for many of us, the function of our beds. But Stanley stresses that reserving your bed strictly for sleep is essential for getting a better quality rest.
“Your bed should be used for the three Ss and the three Ss only: sleep, sex and sick. Everything else should happen outside of the bed,” she says. “We know this is difficult at this time when we’ve created home offices in our beds because that’s where we’re comfortable, but removing distractions like laptops is really important.”
Get out of bed when you can’t sleep. Been tossing and turning for hours, mind racing with useless thoughts? (See: Did I turn off the oven? Does my colleague hate me? Are Meghan Markle and Oprah really friends?) Many of us can relate to trying to force ourselves to sleep in these moments of unwanted awakeness. But Stanley suggests a different approach.
“If you find that you wake up in the night and you’re awake for more than 20 minutes, the best thing to do is get out of bed. Get out of bed and do something. That feels really contrary to what people think. Instead, they try digging in for the long haul. It’s better just to get up and do something else – it’ll help tire you out.”
Keep a sleep diary. If you’ve been having issues with sleep for a while now and you’re not sure why some nights it’s better than others, Stanley suggests keeping a sleep diary to track your patterns and progress:
“I use a sleep diary and I love it. Whenever I consult with someone and they’re talking about sleep hygiene and sleep issues, I send them a sleep diary and it helps. It gives a weeklong view and you can check off the different strategies you’ve tried and rate your sleep. So you can find what strategy really works for you.”
Finally – rule out more serious causes of sleep disruption. Just like Stanley said, when it comes to mental health and sleep disturbances, it can be a bit of a chicken and an egg situation. Mental health issues like anxiety and depression can cause issues with under and oversleeping, and lack of sleep can cause anxiety and depression.
If you’re experiencing new or unexplained sleep disruption or difficulty falling or remaining asleep, it’s a good idea to schedule a check up with a medical doctor. A good strategy to support sleep improvement, Stanley says, is a collaborative approach with your physician, nurses and our therapists at Inkblot.
“With information from your doctor, you and your therapist can work together on your sleep hygiene or see if there are other causes,” Stanley says. “But don’t ignore it – poor sleep can have a serious impact on our overall health. A good sleep builds the best foundation for a better day.”
If you need support dealing with sleep disruptions and attending mental health concerns, Inkblot can help. It’s easy to make an appointment with a therapist tailored to your individual needs. Sessions available as soon as today. Visit inkblottherapy.com to get started.
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