You’re lying in bed at night, with every intention of going to sleep to get that full eight hours of rest. But your brain doesn’t seem to want to turn off. Chances are, there’s something in your life that’s keeping you up — a big project at work, a child going off to college or, you know, the global pandemic that is killing thousands of people each day and has radically changed the way most of us are living. Next thing you know, you’re watching the clock and your thoughts start to spiral — I’m still not sleeping, I have to wake up in three hours, I’m going to blow my presentation, I’m going to get fired.
“Although sleep typically occurs during night, our mental and physical preparation for sleep occurs across the 24-hour period,” said Natalie Dautovich, an assistant professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University and a fellow at the National Sleep Foundation. “So, it makes sense that any stress, changes in routine, lack of outdoor activities or exposure to light, or more time spent on electronics that occur during the pandemic could have a negative impact on our sleep.”
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Sleep difficulty is also a symptom of anxiety and depression, which have both increased in the US during the pandemic. Anxiety is a normal human emotion, but when it becomes severe it can impact our daily functioning, including sleep, said Selena Snow, director of the Snow Psychology Group, which specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety, mood disorders and trauma.
When we’re feeling overly anxious or stressed, our body goes into fight or flight mode, which produces more stress hormones, increases respiration, heart rate and muscle tension — none of which are conducive to falling asleep. We don’t need to completely eliminate anxiety to fall asleep, Snow said — but we do need to bring it down to a manageable level.
If you’re finding that you’re having trouble sleeping, here are some research-proven tips that can help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer, broken into three categories: environment, routine and emotional state. (We’ll also explain when it’s time to contact a medical professional, as a chronic lack of sleep can be a symptom of another health issue, or can lead to medical problems down the line.)
Improve your sleep environment
Your first step toward better, less anxious sleep is improving your sleep environment, and plenty of studies light the path for what to do.
Lower the temperature. The best sleep happens in a room that’s between 60 to 67 degrees F, research shows. When you get tired, your temperature starts to drop to get your body into sleep mode. If a room is too warm, your body won’t reach its optimal sleep temperature, and it’ll be harder for you to fall and stay asleep.
Lower that thermostat: The ideal temperature for sleeping is between 60 and 67 degrees F, studies show.
Put down your phone or laptop at least one hour before bed. I know, this is a tricky one. But the reason why is twofold, said Jen Butler, CEO of stress management training firm J.B. Partners and a diplomat for the American Institute of Stress.
First, the blue light from your phone messes up your circadian rhythm, making it hard to fall asleep. Second, when you’re on your phone, you’re likely to be on social media or the internet, and come across something related to politics, the pandemic or other negative news that can trigger a stress response in your brain. Without even realizing it, you’re keeping your mind awake.
Invest in a comfortable mattress, sheets and pillows. You don’t want your body to be uncomfortable during sleep, which can wake you up.
Turn your clock or phone around. Don’t watch the minutes tick by as you’re trying to sleep.
Mask noises. You can find plenty of white noise apps and machines to block out unwanted sounds while you’re trying to sleep.
Create a new routine
Looking at your phone before bed is a bad idea for two reasons: The blue light will disrupt your circadian rhythm, and whatever you see on social media or in the news is guaranteed to stress you out.
Getty/Yiu Yu Hoi
Breaking bad habits before and after you get into bed can go a long way to improving your sleep. Here are some that will get you on the right track.
Avoid the news and social media. About two hours before you want to go to sleep, you shouldn’t consume any news, social media or anything potentially negative or stressful, Butler said.
Wake up at the same time every day, no matter what time you go to sleep. When you shift your focus from when you go to sleep to when you wake up, your body starts to acclimate, and goes to sleep at the same time every night, studies show.
Limit caffeine, alcohol and chocolate, especially at night. All of these are stimulants that can keep you awake.
Get out of bed. Many people fall into a pattern: You get into bed and lie awake worrying about whether or not you’re going to fall asleep. Then, your brain starts to associate your bed with a place where you go to lie awake and worry about sleep, as opposed to a cue for actually going to sleep, Snow said.
You want to break that link. If you notice that you’re lying awake in bed worrying about sleeping, you should get out of bed and go do something quiet and relaxing, like read a book on your couch. When you start to feel drowsy, go back to bed. You don’t want the bed to become the stimulus for staying awake.
Put yourself in a better emotional state
Sleep relies on the connection between your body and mind. And there are simple ways to put your mind in a better emotional state to help yourself fall asleep faster.
Avoid catastrophizing. Our thoughts and worries play a major role in our ability to sleep, Dautovich said. “You cannot force yourself to sleep, so try to avoid putting pressure on yourself to sleep or catastrophizing if you don’t sleep,” she added. That means avoiding the anxious spiral of what will happen the next day if you don’t fall asleep soon.
Challenge those thoughts and worries, and try to replace them with more helpful ones like, “I didn’t sleep well last night, but I’ll be OK today” to relieve some of that anxiety, Datovich said.
Try out different exercises like deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation to help you fall asleep.
Another trick is to sing the ABCs in your head, over and over. That will keep your brain from thinking about anything else, and eventually wear it out like a muscle to help you fall asleep, Butler said.
And remember: humans can function fine even when we’re tired. Think of new parents who’ve been up all night with their baby, or emergency room doctors who have been on call for days. It may not be comfortable, but it’s not impossible.
Read more: How to be happy, according to science
Perform deep relaxation exercises. At this point you may be tired of hearing about mindfulness and meditation. But there are certain activities you can do that tap into this idea of regulating your mind and body without the need for any app or set of instructions, Butler said.
For example, lay on your bed for five minutes listening to something calming, whether its soothing music or sounds of waves crashing or a classical piece. Visualize yourself relaxing in your favorite place — the beach or a cabin in the woods or wherever. Visualize yourself falling asleep.
You can also try exercises to ground your mind, like the 54321 exercise, in which you pay attention to five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste at the moment. This directs attention to your senses and away from worrying about sleep.
Control your breathing. Focusing on your breathing can slow your breath (which often becomes more rapid when you’re anxious), and can also redirect your attention from thoughts like “why haven’t I fallen asleep yet?”
Try progressive muscle relaxation. Tensing and relaxing different muscle groups can also help your body physically relax.
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When to seek professional help
Again, it’s not uncommon to experience occasional difficulty sleeping, especially considering all the factors that contribute to healthy or unhealthy sleep. But difficulty sleeping becomes problematic when it occurs several nights per week, and lasts for more than a month, Butler said. It’s also an issue if the persistent lack of sleep interferes with your daily activities (such as falling asleep while driving, or on the job), and has led to problems with your memory and concentration.
At that point, you should make an appointment to see your primary care physician. That professional should be your first point of contact when it comes to anything related to stress (as opposed to say a sleep center) because they can look at your health comprehensively, and can refer you to the specialists you may need, Butler said. Lack of sleep can be a disorder in and of itself, but it can also be a symptom of many other medical conditions, including anxiety, depression and hypothyroidism.
If you are diagnosed with clinical insomnia, there are different treatment options. If you’ve already made the changes outlined in this story, your doctor may recommend cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia. This can help you learn to control or eliminate the negative thoughts and actions that keep you awake, and is generally recommended as the first line of treatment. It’s often equally or more effective than sleep medications, according to the Mayo Clinic. There are also lots of prescription and over-the-counter sleep aids that your doctor may recommend.
Whether your sleep troubles are caused by a temporary stressor or a more persistent anxiety, “it’s important to recognize that there is an increased amount of anxiety during the pandemic, and that’s an appropriate response to something that is very scary,” Snow said. “Be gentle with yourself when you notice you’re having anxiety, rather than beating yourself up. And reach out and ask for help if you do need it.”
Ultimately, this pandemic will pass, Butler said. “This is temporary, and the more we can view it as a moment in our lives, it will help put things in perspective,” she added. “The definition of stress is how we perceive the world. If we can perceive this time as just a moment, we will be better off. We will all sleep much more soundly at night.”
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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.