In collaboration with the team at HerHampshire. The published article can be found here.
This prolonged period of adversity and uncertainty has stirred up the perfect sleep storm. The pandemic has affected multiple aspects of our lives and one in four people are currently suffering with insomnia symptoms associated with worry. Healthy eating habits and exercise routines have been disrupted, and home-working has introduced variability into well-established sleep-wake patterns. A robust sleep system thrives on consistency and structure, and the blurring of boundaries between work and home life has resulted in poorer sleep quality. As if this wasn’t enough, the resources we rely on for our emotional and physical well-being, including seeing family, friends and enjoying hobbies, are restricted. If you are struggling with sleep, you are not alone, this is a particularly challenging time for many people.
We need to sleep well for our physical, cognitive and emotional health, and for the robust functioning of the immune system. When we are run down with a viral infection this can interfere with our sleep and at the same time restorative sleep is just what we need for recovery. Good sleep enables a well-balanced immune response and optimises the body’s response to vaccines. With the lingering effects of long-Covid, it may serve us well to be proactive in addressing our sleep-health.
Top Tips for Managing Acute Sleeplessness
Trust the body – “this too shall pass.”
For most people, poor sleep is a short-term experience which resolves as the effects of the triggering events subside. We need to be kind to ourselves and ride the waves as best we can. Once we move out of ‘threat mode’, adapt to new circumstances and accept things as they are right now, sleep has the opportunity to reinstate naturally.
Sleep problems can persist when people become preoccupied with how to make things better. This might feel productive, but it actually creates tension in the mind and body that is incompatible with sleep.
It can be tempting to over-use caffeine in order to mitigate the effects of sleep-loss, and to turn to alcohol as a way to get to sleep, but both lead to poor quality sleep and exacerbate the problem. Sleep is the result of processes outside of our conscious control. It is easy to forget this, and to feel that ‘nothing works’ when we are unknowingly overriding the body’s natural recovery process.
Mindfulness is a great life-skill to practice for general well-being and can be valuable during these turbulent times. This is about paying attention in the present moment, without judgement, and relating to our internal experiences with curiosity and kindness. The quality of awareness that arises involves an acceptance of things just the way they are, and keeps us connected in the mind and body. Mindfulness is truly valuable when we use it to stay connected to our personal values. This means creating space for difficult emotions and experiences, and at the same time continuing to engage with what is important to you.
The more we practice using our attention in this way during the day, even for a couple of minutes, the more accessible this state becomes at night, training the brain to regulate attention in a way that supports good sleep.
Maintain a consistent rise-time, even if you had a bad night, and stick to roughly the same bed-time which should be determined by when you naturally feel sleepy. In the morning, make sure you have sufficient time in natural daylight- this is a great way to support your circadian rhythm.
Sleep-need and optimal sleep timing will be unique to the individual and affected by factors including whether you are more of a morning or evening person. Feeling sleepy during the day doesn’t necessarily mean you need more time to sleep, it may well indicate that you are spending too much time in bed and the hours allocated to sleep aren’t working well for you. If you are unwell, of course then your body may need more sleep to recover. It’s important to be mindful of whether your body is really needing more sleep or whether you are feeling fatigued, which can be addressed with a different approach.
This year there has been much more opportunity for introducing variability into sleep-wake patterns, but going to bed early, lying-in, or taking late naps weakens the sleep drive that needs to accumulate across the day, and can interfere with our body-clocks. Often people will extend lie-ins over the weekend to combat tiredness, but this can then make it harder to fall asleep on subsequent nights, and the sleep received can be more fragmented. Remember that without you having to do anything, your sleep system will prioritise the type of sleep you need most on the nights that follow sleep-deprivation.
Put the day to rest
It is easy to fall into the habit of worrying, planning and strategising at night-time. During the day, as worries show up, try noting them down in a notebook. At the end of each day, reserve 15 minutes to attend specifically to these concerns. Some of them may no longer be a concern, some may require immediate action, some may be hypothetical worries, others may be worries which can be addressed with problem solving.
For each worry, either acknowledge it is present and that there is nothing that can be done right now, or make a mini plan for the next steps needed. It can also be helpful to review and update a to-do list, to give yourself permission to let things go until tomorrow.
Prioritise wind-down time
The activities of wind-down will be different for each of us and it’s important to be flexible with what you need on any given day. Having a warm bath an hour and a half before bed is helpful for sleep, and we know that many people find evening yoga, mindfulness and gratitude practice beneficial. We need to feel safe and soothed in the body and mind to really let go into sleep, so spend a little time creating the conditions that work for you.
Often people rely on distraction to take their minds off worries, and this can be problematic for sleep, particularly when it is in the form of screen-time and social media use. Stimulation and blue light from devices cue the continuation of wakefulness when instead, we need the production of melatonin to promote sleep. If you need to look at screens, try applying the blue-light filters or investing in a pair of blue-light filtering glasses. Especially during the winter months, use light to support your sleep-wake cycle. During the day, bright-light helps us to stay alert and to combat sleepiness, but in preparation for wind-down we want to turn down artificial lights and use warmer low-level lighting.
If you have checked in with yourself and attended to worries, there’s nothing wrong with watching TV in the evening, or browsing the internet for hobbies/interests. What matters is how the activities affect states in the body, so try to choose books or TV programmes with uplifting and easy-going content and connect with friends and loved ones who lift your spirits. Apps such as ‘Calm’ have Sleep Stories that have been very popular and assist with preparing for the night by keeping attention on an enjoyable but sleep-friendly storyline.
These are general tips for managing the short-term effects of sleeplessness. If you are experiencing persistent difficulties, or feel you need additional support, please do get in touch.