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Managing Sleep in the Time of Coronavirus

By Marni Amsellem, Ph.D.

We’ve now been living life in quarantine for many months. What now rings true is the following observation: Quarantine continues to affect all areas of life. From our social interactions to our work, from family dynamics to diet, physical activity… and sleep – our lives have been touched by this sudden change in lifestyle.

If your sleep schedule or your sleep patterns have shifted in recent months, you are far from being alone. If you are feeling like your sleep patterns (or the patterns of others in your household) are not working well for you right now, this article will help break down what is happening and why, as well as offer suggestions about what you can do about it.

Why are so many of us noticing changes to their sleep since quarantine began? The answers to this question are manifold. Being home-bound for an unknown period of time creates multiple scenarios that jeopardize healthy sleep, including:

  • Significant changes in daily routine, including: working from home exclusively for most, changes in the amount of time you spend inside (and the list goes on and on);
  • When we are not regularly getting outside during the daylight, we are having inconsistent exposure to sunlight. Sunlight regulates our circadian rhythm, which helps our body recognize when it’s time to sleep;
  • Changes in physical activity levels, which we’ve had to adjust to since gyms closed their doors and the commute to the “office” has been reduced significantly, can influence how we sleep;
  • For many, our sleep and/or personal space is now our work space; maintaining a distinction between functional spaces in our physical environment is challenging;
  • Our interactions with the outside world have largely been virtual and often are filtered through what we read or hear in the news. Processing what we take in can certainly take a toll on our sleep;
  • Perhaps most pervasive of all is the impact of worry and persistent thoughts triggered by uncertainty. Worry can certainly directly impact our sleep.

Your Sleep in Quarantine

How has quarantine affected your sleep? If the answer to this question is something that is problematic for you, here are some tips on how to make changes now to address these problems.

Paying Attention to Your Routine

One of the most effective ways to improve something that is problematic for us (in this case, sleep) is to pay attention to the larger context in which it exists. A good starting place is to simply assess how your daily (and nighttime) routine has changed, since being homebound, compared to your regular patterns prior to the pandemic. Which parts of your routine have remained the same, and which parts have changed? Now examine both what IS working for you right now in your current daily life, as well as what is NOT working at this moment.

Acknowledge those aspects of your routine that make sense for you right now, and then continue with these aspects of your routine. Acknowledge and address the aspects of your routine that are NOT working for you. Consider (and make) modifications that may be more adaptive for you under your current circumstances. If you notice an absence of functional routine, consider establishing a more formal routine based on what does and does not work for you right now. As demands or constraints change and situations in the broader world shift, recalibrate and adjust as needed. The take home message is that our routines are incredibly important to productive functioning, and we can do a lot to help create and modify our routines.

Paying Attention to Factors that Help Promote Healthy Sleep

These tips are important for healthy sleep, regardless of whether or not you are living in quarantine:

  • To reinforce the importance of routine, be mindful of how your routine is either helping or sabotaging your sleep. If you’re not already doing this, aim for regularity when you realize something is working for you routine. One suggestion is to allow for time each night before bed to “wind down” from your day before you enter your bed.
  • Create an ideal sleep environment. Your ideal environment factors in your preferences for temperature (cool temps are usually more conducive for sleep), sound, and lighting (based on how sensitive you are to morning light seeping into the room).
  • To the extent which this is feasible for you right now, try not to work in your bedroom. Maintain your bed as a place that is reserved for sleep and relaxation only.
  • Electronics and work have their role in your life, but for optimal sleeping, it is recommended that you decide to keep them out of your bed. Electronic usage in bed can become a slippery slope. With regular use of electronics in bed, our brain may get confused about the purpose of your activity and have a harder time shutting down when we get into bed at night to sleep.
  • Be mindful of naps. If you had an “off” night and feel the urge to nap, it is strongly recommended to sleep for no more than 20-25 minutes and to nap early in the day. Set an alarm if you have to. Longer sleep durations often result in difficulty sleeping at night; you may not feel the urge to sleep when it’s the time you typically head to bed. Alternatively, skip the nap altogether.
  • Consider your activities during your wakeful hours and how they may impact sleep. This includes, but is not limited to, exercise (presence and timing of), your food choices (including timing of), and caffeine and alcohol consumption. Reflect on how these affect your sleep and, with that information in hand, make choices that support sound sleep for you. Also, be mindful of your choices around news and media consumption and make adjustments to the timing and quantity if needed.
  • De-stress. Consider what usually works for you when it comes to managing stress and what has worked for you thus far in quarantine. If this is an area that needs improvement, now is a time to get creative and consider new approaches, such as meditation, taking walks, engaging in a creative outlet, or dusting off an old hobby.
  • If you’re regularly tossing and turning, get out of bed and instead choose a relaxing activity outside of bed. Once you notice that you yawn or are feeling sleepy, take that as a cue to re-enter bed. You are, in essence, hitting “reset” on your efforts to fall asleep.

Not Paying Overt Attention to “Pandemic Dreams”

One final note has to do with a phenomenon that many people are experiencing right now: vivid dreams related to themes arising from the pandemic. Know that if this is true for you, these dreams are most likely a normal response to uncertainty and stress and are nothing to worry about. Vivid dreams can also be triggered by sleep deprivation, schedule disruption, or changes in substance use. Recognize that it may take a little more time to wind down from them if you do wake up from one.

Marni Amsellem, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist based in metro NYC and Connecticut specializing in health psychology and helping her clients develop skills to navigate challenges and build resilience. In addition to having a private practice, she is an author and consultant. As a topic expert and researcher, Dr. Amsellem consults with hospitals, organizations, and companies on issues related to behavior change and health psychology. She has authored two books, The Big Idea Journal: A Tool for Facilitating Change and Bringing your Idea to Life and Navigating Relationships in Bipolar Disorder. Additionally, she writes about a variety of mental health, relationship, health, and prevention-focused topics in multiple media outlets (accessible on her website www.smarthealthpsych.com) and on Twitter (@smartpsychreads). More recently, she has launched www.writereflectgrow.com, an online community focused on journaling where she offers journaling-focused online and live workshops, journals (coming soon!), and other resources. Look for Write. Reflect. Grow. on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter and stay tuned for announcements.