The first few times I had trouble sleeping during the coronavirus pandemic, I chalked it up to my lack of activity. Aside from a walk or two outside, the farthest distance I was covering each day was from the bedroom to the kitchen. I had pent-up energy, I thought, which was why my ZZZs had been light and fitful.
But after a couple of weeks of the same not-great shuteye, I started to suspect there was more going on. My friends were having the same trouble. Turns out, my trouble coping with coronavirus anxiety was likely playing a big role in my sudden insomnia.
"We've seen more people worried, more people with anxiety... and more insomnia," says Seema Khosla, MD, the medical director of the North Dakota Centre for Sleep, who has been seeing patients virtually over the past month or two.
Of course, not logging enough hours in bed can fuel anxiety too, creating a vicious cycle: You're stressed, so you can't sleep, which makes you more stressed. So we asked Dr Khosla for tips on how to break that loop — tonight.
Stop working in bed
We know, we know — when you're working from home, your bed doubles as a desk. And maybe a dinner table and a couch too. "The work day has vanished. There are no boundaries anymore, and so people are working late into the evening and staying up too late," says Dr Khosla. But now it's more critical than ever to be strict about what you do between the sheets.
If you work in bed, you'll start to associate your bedroom with the stresses of the day. Use your mattress for sleep and sex only — suddenly, it'll be a much more relaxing place to be.
Get some exercise
My fitness hiatus wasn't doing my ZZZs any good. Doing 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise will help you sleep better that very same night, reports Johns Hopkins Medicine. Walking, jogging, or doing a little HIIT circuit on your living room floor will get your heart rate up enough to make a difference. And luckily, Instagram Live is filled with free workouts right now.
Avoid alcohol before bed
Have a glass of wine with dinner, but cut yourself after dessert. Alcohol interferes with body's ability to regulate sleep, according to a study out of the University of Missouri-Columbia. It may feel like having a few drinks helps you doze off, but it reduces the quality of your sleep overall, so you'll wake up feeling tired.
"Additionally, alcohol is a diuretic, which increases your need to go the bathroom and causes you to wake up earlier in the morning," Pradeep Sahota, MD, chair of the MU School of Medicine's Department of Neurology, explained to ScienceDaily.
Try out a relaxation app
Sometimes I find that even when I'm exhausted, as soon as I switch off my light, my mind starts racing. If that sounds familiar, try listening to a sleep meditation as you drift off. I'm partial to Chris Hemsworth's app, but there are a million free options in the app store or on Youtube. Look for mindfulness meditation specifically, which is proven to improve sleep quality, according to a study published in The JAMA Network Journals. The practice increases melatonin, the hormone that makes you drowsy.
Limit your screentime
Put down anything that shines light directly into your eyeballs for 30 to 60 minutes before your desired bedtime, suggests Dr Khosla. That includes your phone, tablet, TV, and laptop. "Your body needs dim light to secrete melatonin," she explains. If you can't quit your pre-bed FaceTime or Instagram session, at least dim the screen as low as humanly possible, and hold it far away from your face.
Step away from the news
If you refuse to give up screens, at least say goodbye to the news — especially before bed. Yes, it's important to stay informed about what's happening around the world. But binging on coronavirus news before turning in could ratchet up your anxiety, according to Harvard Health Services. The result? Tossing and turning.
I'm experimenting with giving myself a "news curfew." A couple hours before bed, I cut myself off from the news so my head can clear and my stress levels can sink. It's surprising how little I miss in those few short hours.
Talk to somebody
"There's a huge relationship between mental health and sleep," Dr. Khosla says. "People are feeling isolated and alone and maybe their mental health is not doing well, and insomnia is a symptom of that. It's important to look at it and be honest with ourselves and say, 'Maybe I'm not as okay as I'm putting out there.'" Anxiety can be sneaky — you may not even consciously realise it's what's fuelling your insomnia.
If these tips don't help resolve your sleep issues, or if insomnia is something that you've had before and it's worsening, Dr. Khosla recommends reaching out to your medical provider. Your shuteye is important to your overall health and to your mental health, so staying on top of it is a must during quarantine.
The World Health Organization has declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. It says you can protect yourself by washing your hands, covering your mouth when sneezing or coughing (ideally with a tissue), avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth and don't get too close to people who are coughing, sneezing or with a fever.