Anyone else wondering why it’s suddenly so difficult to fall asleep these days?
If you’re like me, you want to fall asleep when you lay down in bed and wake up early and have an awesome productive day! You would love to have a consistent healthy habit, where you fall asleep and wake up at the same time every night and every morning. Because let’s be honest, we’ve been told a hundred times, “don’t look at your phone or watch TV before bed, don’t eat late at night or too much an hour before you plan to go to bed, don’t do __ fill in the blank___”. Why is it so difficult to be consistent? Why is it so tempting to keep reaching for the phone, watch TV, or eat a late night snack?!
One big glaring reason why it’s been difficult for most people in the world to keep up with a healthy sleeping habit these days is… *drumroll*… yup, you guessed it – the pandemic. So allow your mind to rest more at ease knowing that it’s not entirely in your control. The events of the world have disrupted our lives. It’s natural to have your sleep negatively impacted during this time. Our bodies are built to go into ‘survival mode’ when triggered to potential danger, and the natural instinct to danger is to stay alert and watchful.
“Stress levels are increased due to uncertainty, as well as due to illness and loss. Stress is a major factor in sleep problems. For people who already had insomnia prior to COVID-19, a major stressor like the pandemic can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can then lead to worsening sleep quality.”Dr. Kanta Velamuri, sleep medicine expert at Baylor College of Medicine
Having to stay indoors and isolate yourself from others, the increased stress due to uncertainty about the economy, kids going back to school, businesses closing and money concerns, not to mention the growing tension in society over a multitude of strong opinions, there’s a lot pressing on the mind! When we lay our heads down on our pillows and the world is quiet, it’s natural to have your overburdened mind have difficulty ‘shutting off’.
Even in normal times, approximately 30 percent to 35 percent of the population experiences acute, or short-term, insomnia, said Posner, a member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and a founding member of the Society of Behavioral Sleep Medicine. Defined in the fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as difficulty going to sleep, staying asleep, or waking too early, this lack of rest is triggered by stress or any event that changes quality of life — a manifestation of the “fight or flight” response to danger — and is different from the sleep deficit caused by too-busy schedules.Donn Posner, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health “Insomnia in a pandemic”
There are a few other reasons why you may be struggling to get the sleep you need, or maybe you’re getting enough hours in – but your schedule is off. For me, I have no trouble getting the hours in – but my clock is completely off, I’m not falling asleep until sometimes 5AM, and sleeping in until 1 or 2 PM!
- Disruption of Daily Life — adjusting to new daily schedule. Being stuck at home, especially if it has low levels of natural sunlight, may reduce light-based cues for wakefulness and sleep – known as ‘Zeitgebers’, which are crucial for our circadian rhythm. Also being under ‘stay at home’ orders, having to stay inside, it would be tempting to oversleep each morning. Sleeping more than 7-8 hours per night can make waking up on time much more difficult.
- Anxiety and Worry – As mentioned above, people would naturally fear catching the virus or passing it on to love ones. Economic concerns would understandably keep you up at night. There is also still so much unknown about this pandemic, that the uncertainty brings anxiety and disrupts sleep with a racing mind keeping the body tossing and turning.
- Depression and Isolation – This crisis can bring about isolation and depression that may be even worse for people who have a loved one who is sick or has passed away from COVID-19. Grief and depression can be exacerbated by isolation at home, and both are known to have the potential to cause significant sleeping problems.
- Excess Screen Time – Whether it’s checking the news on your phone, joining a Zoom with family, binge-watching Netflix, or putting in extra hours staring at a computer while working-from-home, social distancing can mean a huge increase in screen time.
Excess screen time, especially later in the evening, can have a detrimental impact on sleep. Not only can it stimulate the brain in ways that make it hard to wind down, but the blue light from screens can suppress the natural production of melatonin, a hormone that the body makes to help us sleep.
- Stress-Related Fatigue – The chronic stress of living through a pandemic can lead to a host of physical symptoms, including persistent headaches, memory lapses, and digestive problems. Stress-related fatigue is another common side effect. The Mayo Clinic defines fatigue as “a nearly constant state of weariness that develops over time and reduces your energy, motivation and concentration.” Even if you receive an adequate amount of sleep at night, fatigue can still leave you feeling tired and unmotivated in the morning.
It could be your medication, or an underlying condition. Harvard Medical School has been studying sleep issues for years, and part of their study has found that sleep issues can be linked to an underlying health condition such as: Enlarged prostate gland, Chronic pain, Neuropathy, Acid Reflex, Restless Leg Syndrome, or Sleep Apnea.
“In some cases, insomnia is caused by a medical condition such as sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome or chronic pain, or by a mental health disorder such as depression. Treatment for one of these underlying conditions may be necessary for insomnia to get better. Also, treating insomnia may help depression symptoms improve faster.”Eric J. Olson, M.D. Mayo Clinic “Insomnia: How do I stay asleep?”
“Many women who suffer from pre-menstrual syndrome or pre-menstrual dysmorphic disorder report trouble sleeping with complaints of difficulty falling asleep, frequent awakenings, and non-restorative sleep. Thirty percent of pregnant women and 42% of postpartum women also report insomnia and restless sleep.”Dr. Kanta Velamuri, sleep medicine expert at Baylor College of Medicine
Why Sleep Is Important For Healing
It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyways – we need sleep. Yes, we’ve ALL been triggered by this world-wide pandemic, and now that we understand a little better why our sleep has gotten worse, we can do something about it! Here are some reminders why we need to do everything within our power to work on rebuilding a healthier bedtime routine:
Sleep & Your Immune System
Quality sleep helps strengthen your body’s defenses.
Sleep & Building a Stronger Brain
If you’ve ever felt like your mind is ‘fuzzy’ or ‘foggy’, your sleep patterns are likely part of the culprit. With sufficient rest, our brains operate better, contributing to better problem solving, learning, memory, and decision-making.
Sleep Helps ‘Reset’ Your Mood – You’ll Feel Happier!
Not enough sleep, or over sleeping, can contribute towards a worsening mood; feeling grumpy, dragged down, lethargic and worsening depression.
Sleep Improves Mental Health
Depression studies have found that lack of sleep is linked to mental health conditions like anxiety, bipolar disorder (“feeling like you don’t need sleep, or sleeping too much”), and PTSD.
Is It Possible For Me To Sleep Better?
I know after attempting several times in your life, it’s easy to fall out of a healthy sleep habit, so it’s understandable you’d feel hopeless at times – like “is it worth it?”. But look at it this way… instead of looking at ‘falling off the healthy sleep wagon’ countless times, look at it as ‘leveling up’. Every time you try again you’re placing the notch or foothold in a higher position, because you haven’t failed, you’ve gathered more feedback. Your restarting with greater knowledge. Every attempt at building a better sleep routine, you’re approaching your re-commitment with experience. Maybe your brain and your body needs multiple tries to learn how to be disciplined, compared to someone else who it comes more naturally. You’re not a bad or ‘broken’ person, you just learn differently than others, and your strengths and weaknesses will always be different than others.
So, how can this be done? How do you ‘restart’ your healthy sleeping habits?
In my studying on how I can help myself find a healthier sleep routine, I found the experts in their field, many repeating the same advice ( National Sleep Foundation, University of Utah Health Care, Harvard Medical School, NHS, Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, Baylor College of Medicine, Michigan Medicine – Department of Psychiatry ). I read all of those linked articles and compiled the top 5 most common, most often repeated advice and recommendations for building better sleep, so you don’t have to read through all of them. These are the notes I gathered:
1) Don’t fight what comes naturally to you.
Is it your chronotype? Are you fighting your chronotype? So what’s a chronotype? People are morning people or evening people, and some people are very morning people and some very evening people. So let’s pick the very evening people who feel like they’re the very most productive at 10 o’clock at night, and they start getting sleepy about 1:00. If you make them go to bed at 10:00, they won’t feel sleepy, and it may take them hours to go to sleep. All adolescents are, by development, night people. So you want your teen to go to sleep at 9:30 or 10:00 to get their 8 or 9 hours of sleep so they can get up at 6 o’clock and walk the dog and go to high school. Well, all over the world, teenagers are owners of the night, and they sleep in the shade. So, if you are a night person by virtue of your age, an adolescent, or by virtue of your chronotype, and you are going to bed at 10:00 because you know you have to get up at 6:00, but normally you’re not sleepy until 1:00, it would be normal for you not to feel sleepy.Dr. Kirtly Parker Jones “It Takes Me Hours to Fall Asleep – Am I Normal?”
“If you can’t sleep do not try to force it. Good sleepers put no effort into sleep whatsoever.”Donn Posner, Harvard Medical School “Insomnia in a pandemic”
“If you can’t fall back to sleep within 20 minutes, get out of bed. Use your “mind clock, ” Dr. Walia says, to estimate how long you’ve been awake. After 20 minutes of wakefulness, get up and leave your bedroom. “Don’t spend time in bed trying to fall asleep,” she says. “You probably will start worrying about falling asleep and then learn to associate the bedroom with not sleeping well.”Harneet Walia, M.D., Cleveland Clinic Sleep Disorders Center
“Don’t try to sleep if you can’t fall asleep within 15-30 minutes —instead, get out of bed and do something quiet and relaxing until you feel sleepy.”Michigan Medicine Department of Psychiatry, Sleep & Circadian Research Labratory
“Exposure to light plays a crucial role in helping our bodies regulate sleep in a healthy way. As you deal with disruptions to daily life, you may need to take steps so that light-based cues have a positive effect on your circadian rhythm.National Sleep Foundation
— If you can, spend some time outside in natural light. Even if the sun isn’t shining brightly, natural light still has positive effects on circadian rhythm. Many people find outdoor time is most beneficial in the morning, and as an added bonus, it’s an opportunity to get fresh air.
— As much as possible, open windows and blinds to let light into your home during the day.
— Be mindful of screen time. The blue light produced by electronic devices, such as mobile phones, tablets, and computers, has been found to interfere with the body’s natural sleep-promoting processes. As much as possible, avoid using these devices for an hour before bed. You can also use device settings or special apps that reduce or filter blue light. “
2) Resist the Temptation To Nap! Don’t do it!
“…even though it may seem counterintuitive after a lost night’s sleep, avoid napping, or at least cut it short. Likening naps to snacks, he warned that napping for longer than 20 minutes or late in the day ruins our “appetite” for sleep. Likewise, he dispelled the idea that sleeping late on weekends or after a night tossing and turning can make up for lost sleep. “Do not try to compensate for a bad night’s sleep,” he said; it only further disrupts one’s regular rhythms.”Donn Posner, Harvard Medical School “Insomnia in a pandemic”
“If you’re home all day, you may be tempted to take more naps. While a short power nap early in the afternoon can be useful to some people, it’s best to avoid long naps or naps later in the day that can hinder nighttime sleep. “National Sleep Foundation
“Do not take naps if you have trouble sleeping at night. If you’re a good sleeper who takes daytime naps, nap the right way—limit naps to 30 minutes or less, and time the nap to be about 6 hours after your wake time, ideally taken at around the same time each day.”Michigan Medicine Department of Psychiatry, Sleep & Circadian Research Laboratory
3) Carve out at least 30 minutes of wind-down time before bed…
“Have a warm bath, listen to quiet music or do some gentle yoga to relax your mind and body. “NHS ‘National Health Service UK’ – “10 tips to beat insomnia”
“Establish a quiet, relaxing bedtime routine. For example, drink a cup of caffeine-free tea, take a warm shower or listen to soft music. Avoid prolonged use of electronic devices with a screen, such as laptops, smartphones and ebooks before bed.”Mayo Clinic “Insomnia: How do I stay asleep?”
“One hour before bedtime, stop doing work or other mentally challenging tasks. Switch to something calming such as reading a book.”Harneet Walia, M.D., Cleveland Clinic Sleep Disorders Center
“To help get your mind and body ready for sleep, give yourself an hour to wind-down before your bedtime. During your wind-down time, avoid watching or reading the news. Do quiet activities in dim light—such as reading, doing a relaxation/meditation exercise, watching a relaxing television show, or listening to music.”Michigan Medicine Department of Psychiatry, Sleep & Circadian Research Laboratory
4) Create a consistent sleeping and waking schedule – even on weekends and days off work.
“Keep a rhythm, even if it’s a different time of day than it used to be,” he said. Parents of adolescents in particular may want to let their children go to bed and rise later than usual, as their growing bodies are set differently than adults or young children’s. Once awake, however, try to get some sunlight, whether by taking a walk or sitting by a window.”Donn Posner, Harvard Medical School “Insomnia in a pandemic”
“Establishing a routine can facilitate a sense of normalcy even in abnormal times. It’s easier for your mind and body to acclimate to a consistent sleep schedule, which is why health experts have long recommended avoiding major variation in your daily sleep times.National Sleep Foundation
Sleep-specific aspects of your daily schedule should include:
— Wake-Up Time: Set your alarm, bypass the snooze button, and have a fixed time to get every day started.
— Wind-Down Time: This is an important time to relax and get ready for bed. It can involve things like light reading, stretching, and meditating along with preparations for bed like putting on pajamas and brushing your teeth. Given the stress of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s wise to give yourself extra wind-down time each night.
— Bedtime: Pick a consistent time to actually turn out the lights and try to fall asleep.
In addition to time spent sleeping and getting ready for bed, it can be helpful to incorporate steady routines to provide time cues throughout the day, including:
— Showering and getting dressed even if you aren’t leaving the house.
— Eating meals at the same time each day.
— Blocking off specific time periods for work and exercise.
5) Exercise Daily & Avoid Caffeine in the Evening.
“Moderate exercise on a regular basis, such as swimming or walking, can help relieve some of the tension built up over the day. But make sure you do not do vigorous exercise, such as running or the gym, too close to bedtime, as it may keep you awake.”NHS ‘National Health Service UK’ – “10 tips to beat insomnia”
“Avoid consuming drinks or food with caffeine before bedtime. Abstain from caffeine for at least five to six hours before you plan to retire, Dr. Walia says. “Caffeine can play a major role in getting a good night’s sleep,” she says.Harneet Walia, M.D., Cleveland Clinic Sleep Disorders Center
“Keeping a regular schedule for meals and exercise helps, as does avoiding stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, and electronic devices for several hours before bed.”Donn Posner, Harvard Medical School “Insomnia in a pandemic”
Additional advice mentioned in the articles was practicing kindness and fostering connection:
“It might not seem critical to your sleep, but kindness and connection can reduce stress and its harmful effects on mood and sleep.National Sleep Foundation
Despite all the bad news that you may come across, try to find some positive stories, such as how people are supporting one another through the pandemic. You can use technology to stay in touch with friends and family so that you can maintain social connections despite the need for social distancing. “
Harvard recommends that if all else fails, you’ve tried everything and you still are experiencing trouble falling asleep and/or staying asleep, you may need some additional help through CBT therapy:
“If you are already practicing healthy sleep behaviors but still have trouble sleeping, consider cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-i). CBT-i is a proven way to treat insomnia through relaxation techniques, talk therapy, and adjustment of the amount of time you spend in bed. It works with your body’s natural controllers of sleep to reset the brain to achieve healthier sleep.”Donn Posner, Harvard Medical School “Insomnia in a pandemic”
If you’re interested in finding a good therapist, I can only recommend from my personal experience. Below is a list of licensed therapists who have been angels in my life and have helped me in my journey of healing:
Nadine Kennington Cooper, Sandy UT, specializes in NLP Therapy: (801) 205-0386
Laura Nielson Denke, Los Angeles CA, specializes in LMHC & LMFT Counseling: (206) 789-1011
Dr. Mark Chamberlain, Salt Lake City UT, specializes in addiction recovery: (801) 564-7566
There are countless other options available, one of which is Amen Clinics. Dr. Daniel Amen has several clinics worldwide. I’m currently taking a Mental Health course that he offers, and hope to be certified in the near future as a Mental Health Coach. He specializes in brain trauma, and focuses his practice on brain scans (physically looking at the part of the body that is in need of treatment, and thus getting a more accurate and proof of diagnosis). Visit his website to learn more about what services his clinic provides that might help you or your loved one: https://www.amenclinics.com/
I hope that the information I have shared above has been helpful for you. Building a new and improved healthy, and consistent, sleep routine has been a life-long challenge for me. I feel like I am constantly learning new information and re-applying good habits that I knew I should be doing, but often choose not to, and then I have to start all over. But like I mentioned earlier, I haven’t failed – I’m just restarting at a higher level and from years of experience. 😉
If this article has been helpful for you and you feel may be helpful for a friend or family member, please feel free to share. 🙂 💚