Please enjoy this special guest blog from Dr. Rebecca Robbins, a post-doctoral research fellow at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. She is the Co-Author of Sleep for Success! Everything You Must Know About Sleep but Are too Tired to Ask (AuthorHouse Publishing) and a Darien native.
Sleep plays a critical role in our mood, health, and well-being. Unfortunately, amid stressful events, such as the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, our ability to get restorative, healthy sleep is fundamentally compromised. Over the past several months, public officials have acted swiftly to curb the spread of the virus, imposing mitigation strategies such as sheltering in place, which have flipped our daily routines and lives upside down. These structural changes are coupled with high levels of uncertainty, such as those pertaining to the origin, prevention and treatment for COVID-19, as well as heightened levels of economic uncertainty. Despite these uncertain times, research shows that small, behavioral changes to sleep routines can go a long way – even in a pandemic – toward more restorative sleep. If you are experiencing sleep difficulty, first acknowledge that disrupted sleep is normal amidst stressful environments, such as our present time. As we do not have control over everything that happens in our lives, what we can control is our response. Here are a few good sleep strategies to follow:
1. Routine is absolutely critical. Without the structure of working, running errands, exercising outside the home, keeping a routine is absolutely critical. Set a bedtime and wake up time that you can meet nearly all days of the week (including week days and weekends).
2. Resist the urge to “stay up” or “sleep in.” A consistent sleep routine is actually one way your internal sleep system stays in sync. We are creatures of habit, and small changes to our routine can disrupt an otherwise careful balance of physiological processes (e.g., the secretion of melatonin in the brain) that culminate in sleep.
3. Save bed for sleep, and sleep alone. Our bed is ideally a sanctuary to our slumber. Choose colors that are soothing for your décor, and invest in the best possible mattress and bedding that you can afford. Avoid working, eating, or watching television in bed, as these behaviors will lead you to subconsciously believe bed is a place for activities other than sleep, and can increase the likelihood you will experience sleep difficulties.
4. Exposure to natural light. Light is the strongest source of input to our circadian rhythm, a term which refers to the highly patterned nature of many physiological processes across a 24-hour day. Sleep operates in such a circadian fashion, dictating that we are tired at certain times during the day, then alert at others. Go outside or open a window when you wake up in the morning, breathe in the fresh air, and feel the sunshine. Believe it or not, this can have a similar effect to caffeine, but without the jitters.
5. Experiencing sleep difficulty? Limit napping. If you are experiencing insomnia symptoms (e.g., difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, waking up too early) then avoid napping in the afternoon. If you are a healthy sleeper and enjoy a nap every now and then, by all means, continue this practice. Keep in mind good napping strategies, including keeping your nap limited to approximately 20-30 minutes.
6. Be mindful of daytime behaviors. What we do (or do not do) during the day matters for our sleep. For instance, too much coffee or caffeine during the day can make it difficult to fall asleep. Similarly, too much water close to bedtime may cause you to wake up to use the bathroom. A dinner too close to bedtime may also make it difficult to fall asleep, as the body is still digesting. Finally, those who exercise get better, deeper sleep. Make time for exercise, to the point of sweating, as many days of the week as possible.
7. Keep worries at bay. If you have not tried meditation, there is perhaps no better time to try, particularly if you find your mind racing with thoughts or worries at night close to bedtime. You may consider a mindfulness breathing exercise, such as sitting in a comfortable position on the floor, or in an arm chair, and breathing long, deep breaths with your eyes closed. Focus on your breath and let thoughts pass.