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Coronavirus: How to get a better night's sleep if you're feeling anxious during the pandemic

Sometimes falling asleep can feel like an impossible task, writes Sarah Young


Friday 18 December 2020 11:25 GMT
Humans are hardwired to get forty winks when they feel safe – but how can we relax when there's so much going on the world?
Humans are hardwired to get forty winks when they feel safe – but how can we relax when there's so much going on the world? (Getty)

Life with the pandemic is not easy, with the majority of the country facing increased financial pressures, anxiety over the health of their loved ones and cabin fever caused by staying at home for days on end.

So much so, that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is proving so stressful for some people that it is causing them to lose sleep at night or, when they do eventually nod off, to have more intense and emotional dreams.

Professor Mark Blagrove, a leading expert in sleep and dreaming at Swansea University’s department of psychology, says that the change in circumstances could be causing people to have metaphorical “replication of life dreams” which trigger powerful visions about their daily lives pre-Covid-19.

“For a lot of people, they won’t dream about their working life because, generally, it’s not that interesting,” Professor Blagrove says.

“But if the current situation gives people more interesting things happening, it may happen that people are dreaming more.”

Meanwhile, others might experience dreams about the coronavirus outbreak itself, suggesting that they are being impacted emotionally.

Lack of sleep is also known to have a detrimental impact on both physical and mental health, raising the risk of problems such as depression, heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.

Max Kirsten, a hypnotherapist and founder of The Sleep Coach, explains that getting a good night’s sleep can help boost the immune system.

“Sleep is your life support system. It helps every cell in your body and brain to renew and to be ready again for another day,” Mr Kirsten says.

“Sleep is your secret weapon increasing your immunity to the coronavirus, with sleep scientists recommending eight hours a night to optimise your body’s immune system.”

Despite this, Dr Sophie Bostock, a sleep expert and founder of The Sleep Scientist, says it is important to understand that some disruption to your slumber is completely normal during times of uncertainty.

“Please don’t panic if you’re struggling to get to sleep, or waking up in the early hours for a few nights,” Dr Bostock says.

“A lot has changed in the last few weeks. Our sleep naturally gets lighter when we’re anxious. When you think about it, this is entirely sensible from an evolutionary perspective. If our brains sense a threat to survival, we ramp up our stress response, so that we’re ready to run (think adrenaline, rapid heartbeat, cortisol… all the stuff that gets us ready for fight or flight).”

Dr Bostock goes on to explain that, sadly, fighting and fleeing from coronavirus isn’t going to help, adding that we need to work hard to convince our brains that we are safe and secure so that it dials down that stress response. This will mean you can get a more restful night’s sleep.

But, just how easy is it to convince your brain that there is no immediate threat when all we are reading about in the news, watching on TV and talking to our friends and loved ones about is the current pandemic?

Here are seven ways to get a better night’s sleep if you’re feeling anxious during the outbreak.

Limit news intake and avoid your phone before bed

It’s time to put down the mobile (iStock)
It’s time to put down the mobile (iStock) (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

According to Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, a sleep therapist and author of Tired But Wired: How to Overcome Your Sleep Problems, we sleep deeply when we feel safe.

“For many of us, repeatedly watching the news and particularly watching the news before going to bed is definitely not a good idea,” Dr Ramlakhan says.

“Bad news fires up the sympathetic nervous system – the part of the nervous system that runs on adrenaline and cortisol and fights threat and stress. In other words, it puts us into a hypervigilant and survival state, the opposite of what we need in order to sleep deeply and restoratively.”

While many of us are already aware of the importance of an electronic sundown before bed, Dr Ramlakhan adds that it is even more important at the moment when we are being “bombarded by social media posts and messages that might lead to a spiral into stress and worry”.

Mr Kirsten agrees, adding that devices often create a “buffer zone” before bedtime.

“In the evenings it is important to understand the circadian rhythm that nearer to bedtime light is less and less, leading your body and your mind towards sleep,” he says.

“Therefore it is not helpful to be using bright screened smartphones and computers before bed, firstly because of the light. Secondly, because these devices stimulate your mind, making it harder to unwind and fall asleep.”

Keep a worry diary

Write down any thoughts before you go to sleep (iStock)
Write down any thoughts before you go to sleep (iStock) (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Before going to bed, Dr Bostock suggests emptying your mind of worries by putting them onto a piece of paper and leaving them there until the morning.

“When there is so much going on, some worry is inevitable, but you can keep it manageable to timeboxing it into a specific slot in your day, perhaps for 15-20 minutes each afternoon,” she says.

“During that time, write down what is worrying you, and what you can do about it. If worries pop up at other times, make a mental note that you can review them during worry time. You may find the same thoughts appear each day. That’s OK – by creating some structure, the same thoughts are less likely to intrude on your sleep.”

Gratitude is a great antidote for anxiety, says Dr Bostock

Dr Bostock adds that, while negative thoughts and emotions can spark up the overactive stress response, positive emotions tend to be calming so you might find it useful to write down things you are most grateful for instead day. “Gratitude is a great antidote for anxiety,” she says.

Dr Ramlakhan agrees, adding that doing something that boosts your mood before bed, such as watching a funny television programme or listening to an uplifting podcast can help you sleep.

“At this time, anything that helps to soothe, settle and regulate the nervous system will be beneficial for your sleep and resilience,” she explains.

Focus on your breathing

While waking up during the night is normal, if it is becoming excessive Dr Ramlakhan suggests laying in bed to try and regulate and deepen your breathing which can help ease you back into slumber.

“Think about easing back and resting rather than sleeping,” she says. ”Follow your breathing by silently whispering the words ‘in’ and ‘out’ to put yourself back to sleep.”

Dr Ramlakhan adds that her “optimal breathing technique” can help you get to sleep, stay calm under pressure and focus your energy. This involves:

  • Noticing your breathing – pay attention to the movement of your chest, shoulders, belly while you breathe.   Close your eyes and bring your attention inwards. Where is your breathing coming from?  
  • Opening up your breathing – straighten up, roll your shoulders back and down, relax your arms and hands, place your tongue on the roof of your mouth.  If you are sitting, raise or lower your chin so that it is parallel to the floor.  
  • Deepening your breathing – prolong your exhalation by a few seconds by pulling your belly in towards your spine. Notice the tug of your diaphragm as you breathe back in more deeply and fully.
  • Slowing your breathing down – at the end of each exhalation and inhalation, pause momentarily. 

If all else fails, get out of bed

Be careful not to make this a habit (Getty)
Be careful not to make this a habit (Getty) (Getty Images)

While the ideal thing to do if you cannot sleep is to use techniques such as breathwork, Dr Bostock says that you should not be afraid of getting out of bed.

“We’ve all been there. The harder you try and sleep, the more you worry about not sleeping and the harder it becomes. You can create the right conditions for sleep, but you can’t force it,” she says.

“If you’re tired, your room is dark, and you’re comfortable, just enjoy the sensation of resting. You may find that by gently attempting to stay awake, sleep takes over. But if not, don’t be afraid to get out of bed. Your bed should never be a battleground.”

Instead, Dr Bostock suggests switching on a lamp and doing a relaxing activity somewhere else in your home until your eyelids are heavy before returning to bed.

While Dr Ramlakhan agrees, she says this should only be “an absolute last resort” as otherwise it can become habitual.

Learn to relax

Whether you like yoga or reading, there are many ways to calm your mind (iStock)
Whether you like yoga or reading, there are many ways to calm your mind (iStock) (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

According to Dr Bostock, relaxation is the skill of switching off the stress response, both physically and mentally, and while what helps you relax with differ person-to-pesron, she recommends trying everything from mindfulness meditation and progressive muscle relaxation to deep breathing and long hot baths.

Alternatively, a number of companies now offer online relaxation tools for free, including Headspace’s “Weathering the Storm” and Calm’s “Covid-19 Hub”, Dr Bostock says.

Mr Kirsten also recommends a simple breathing technique that you can try performing with the lights turned low which involves breathing in for four seconds, holding the breath for four seconds and exhaling the breath for eight seconds, to be repeated five or six times.

Structure your day

While being stuck at home under lockdown has its negatives, Dr Ramlakhan says it is a great time to get into good habits that you can continue once you are back in your usual working habits, such as doing exercise, preparing a nutritious breakfast and taking regular screen and tech-free breaks.

Dr Bostock agrees, explaining that our brains and bodies love structure.

“If you wake, exercise, eat and sleep at similar times each day, seven days a week, your body can anticipate your plans, and all the body’s systems will be working in sync with each other,” she explains. “A regular routine is also really good for anxiety – if you know what is coming next, there is less time to get distracted.”

For Mr Kirsten, the most important part of your routine should be when you go to bed and the time you wake up as these, he says, will “anchor your sleep”.

“It is important to go to bed at the same time in the wake of the same time each day,” Mr Kirsten says.

“We should also be trying to get eight hours of sleep each night. One in two adults is getting by with only six hours sleep a night and this has a negative effect on the autoimmune system. This is not the time to be undersleeping.

“The aim of eight hours sleep a night is to boost your immunity, increase feelings of wellbeing, give you more energy, and reduce reactive behaviour caused by being sleep deprived.”

Take a hot bath

Time to get those bath salts and oils out (iStock)
Time to get those bath salts and oils out (iStock) (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

To ensure you keep a regular bedtime, Mr Kirsten suggests taking a hot bath or even a shower before bed every night.

“In order to seep well, it is important to allow your body temperature to drop by 1C when you get into bed,” he says.

“Taking a hot bath or even a shower before bed can help with your body’s temperature drop combined with a clean feeling. The bedroom temperature should lower during the night from bedtime to between 16 and 18C ideally. If the bedroom is too warm don’t expect to sleep very well.”

Dr Ramlakhan agrees, adding that pampering yourself with lavender-scented Epsom baths, candles and aromatherapy oils can help ”soothe, settle and regulate the nervous system” which will be beneficial for your sleep.

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