Is Coronavirus Anxiety Weighing Down Your Sleep?
Falling asleep during these past few weeks—heck, even just convincing myself to go lie in bed—has become a serious struggle. Ever since Governor Andrew M. Cuomo issued a stay-at-home order on March 20 that essentially locked down New York, where I live, I’ve been staying up until 2 or 3 a.m. Sometimes I have too much energy to even try to shut my eyes, at least partly because my step count has gone way down. Other times, my mind seems to pick up the miles of racing that my feet have lost. I would like to say I’m not always worrying about what’s going on with the new coronavirus outside my four Brooklyn walls as my head hits the pillow, but thoughts of my family’s safety and about the world in general fight me to stay awake. It’s a frustrating feeling. Some of my friends have had similar experiences, with schedules changing on the daily and work hours going haywire, creating additional stress on top of all the other stressful parts of living through a pandemic. Sleep issues are a natural result of all of this. The thing is, sleep is super important right now, not only to help you try to just function from day to day, but also for your mood and anxiety levels. This is true whether or not you have a diagnosed anxiety disorder (or other mental health conditions).
That’s why I turned to sleep experts for tips on how to make it easier to fall and stay asleep during this pandemic.
How anxiety about the new coronavirus can keep you up at night Obviously, it’s easy to feel anxious about everything going on in the world and the uncertainty of when things will return to some sense of normalcy. When you feel anxious, your body reacts by going into a fight or flight state. “Remember that your brain is built to keep you up at night if it thinks it needs to,” Carl Bazil, M.D., Ph.D., director of the division of epilepsy and sleep at Columbia University College of Neurology, tells SELF.
Your brain might register anything ranging from tomorrow’s Zoom work meeting to fears about your loved ones to your own worries about catching COVID-19 as an immediate threat worthy of keeping you up until dawn. Even if you try to tell yourself the stress can wait until morning, it’s hard for your innate survival system to distinguish between what’s an immediate threat and what isn’t, Dr. Bazil explains. 1. Don’t read the news right before bed. It’s a good idea to limit screen time before bed for a few reasons, like the fact that the blue light electronics emit can suppress your normal release of melatonin, a hormone that tells your body to get drowsy.
But in the age of social distancing, many people connect with loved ones via Zoom or FaceTime, including at night. And honestly, if that’s what’s helping you hang onto some happiness right now, even if you do it before bed, keep it going, Kennedy says. But what you don’twant to do is check the news pre-sleep. It’s probably even smart to eliminate the temptation of doing so by laying off social media in those late-day hours if you can, Kennedy adds.
“We all want to stay informed, and we all want to do what’s appropriate to protect ourselves, but you also need some time for your brain to relax before going to sleep,” Dr. Bazil says. “Avoid facing the threat right beforehand. You’re not going to fix a problem in the hour before bed.”
2. Instead, find something relaxing to do before bed. Instead of scrolling through depressing news updates, Dr. Bazil suggests relaxing activities, like mindless TV watching, reading a book, listening to calming music, or taking a hot shower or bath. Meditating can also be a good idea, with apps like Headspace or Calm. Or try a technique called "progressive muscle relaxation," Dr. Bazil says. It’s a breathing exercise where you imagine breathing relaxation through your entire body, starting at your toes and working your way up to your head, while tensing and relaxing different muscles. You can also envision it as “turning off” all those parts of your body as you prepare to rest for the night.
3. Make your space as conducive to good sleep as possible. You’ve probably heard a few sleep hygiene tips time and again, but that’s because they’re really important, especially when sleep is hard to come by. Help yourself out by really setting the scene for good sleep. That includes turning down the lights to help encourage that melatonin release, and making sure your sleep space is cool enough for good rest, Walker says. The ideal temperature for sleep is typically between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit.
4. Only go to bed when you’re actually tired. Something I needed to hear: Don’t go to bed just because you think you should, or it will probably take you longer to fall asleep, says Kennedy.
“If you go to bed too early, before you’re sleepy, it allows for ruminating and frustration,” Kennedy says. “Distract yourself instead, and let sleep come to you.” One of Kennedy’s favorite ways to encourage sleep to find you, instead of the other way around, is reading until you just can’t stay awake anymore. “It gives the mind a place to go away from all the anxious triggers—the body then takes on what it’s supposed to do, which is pull you into sleep,” she says.
5. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. If at all possible, the experts recommend trying to go to bed and waking up at the same time every day, because that can help you feel tired and ready for bed around the same time each night. “If you sleep in too late, then the following evening you're not going to be sleepy at your normal bedtime,” Walker says. Also, try to resist the temptation to curl up on your couch for a long nap during the day, particularly in the late afternoon or evening, or that will also mess with your bedtime (with the caveat that if the only thing that’s going to get you through the day is a nap, definitely take one). If you can, doing various activities around the same time during the day can also help get your body into a routine that makes it easier to eventually fall asleep, J. Todd Arnedt, Ph.D., director of the behavioral sleep medicine program at the Michigan Medicine Sleep Disorders Centers and associate professor of psychiatry and neurology, tells SELF. He suggests eating meals, exercising, and even planning (virtual) social interactions around the same time every day if possible. You don’t have to be really strict about following a specific timetable if you’ll find that more stressful than helpful (now isn’t the time to put a ton of added pressure on yourself), but if you’re having trouble sleeping, playing around with this might be helpful.
There are lots of reasons this tip might be especially hard to follow. Maybe you’re suddenly looking after your kids while working a full-time job from home and haven’t been able to figure out a routine. Or maybe you’re an essential employee with an unpredictable work schedule. It’s really just about doing the best you can. 6. If you wake up at night, do something relaxing to fall back asleep. Scrolling through your news feeds definitely doesn’t count as relaxing. Instead, if you wake up in the middle of the night and have trouble falling back asleep, it’s probably your best bet to get out of bed and do a quiet activity like reading, journaling, meditating, or foam rolling—whatever works to bring you back down—rather than staying in bed. “This is so that your bed doesn’t become a place to worry or feel anxious or upset. It’s to ensure the bed gets associated with sleep-conducive states like relaxation and tiredness,” Arnedt says.
7. Don’t drink alcohol or caffeinated drinks too close to bedtime. While a drink might help you fall asleep, every expert SELF spoke to mentioned that it will likely keep you from getting quality rest. “When [you drink alcohol] and you start to metabolize it, alcohol has a sedating effect,” says Arnedt, explaining why it can feel like such a good idea to have a glass of vino before bed. “But when your body starts eliminating it, alcohol has a more alerting effect,” he says, which is why you sometimes toss and turn all night after drinking before bed. (Alcohol is also a diuretic, meaning it increases urine output, so it might make you wake up and head to the bathroom throughout the night.) Arnedt suggests stopping alcohol consumption three hours or more before bedtime, and consuming in moderation overall. Obviously, these guidelines can be hard to follow after a stressful day even when there’s not a pandemic, but if you think your drinking is part of why you may not be sleeping well, it’s worth trying to cut back (and considering getting some help doing so, if necessary).
On a different drink-related note, Dr. Bazil suggests avoiding over-caffeinating during the day, as well as drinking coffee too close to bedtime. Caffeine’s stimulating nature can obviously keep you awake far longer than is ideal. Try not having caffeine after lunch and seeing where that gets you, or drinking one fewer cup than usual each day.
8. Exercise One thing Dr. Bazil suggests you do during the day that might help you sleep better at night: Move your body. Exercise has well-documented beneficial effects on sleep quality and stress. Anything from (socially distant) walking to cycling to lifting may help relieve stress and anxiety, thereby helping you to sleep better at night, he says. However, Dr. Bazil recommends staying away from a high-energy class right before bedtime because that might make it harder to fall asleep. If you’re not sure where to start, here are some ideas for ways to move your body when you’re stuck at home.
Even though incorporating physical activity into your life can be great, try to be realistic and gentle with yourself. “There’s so much pressure to get good habits in place and get healthy,” Kennedy says. “It’s important to take care of yourself.... but it’s also extremely stressful.” It’s okay to do just as much as feels right for you rather than trying to overhaul all your old exercise habits and build an intense new routine from scratch.
9. Experiment with other outlets for stress and anxiety. Working through your worries during the day could also help control those thoughts at night, says Arnedt. “Spend some time fleshing out what you’re worried about,” he suggests. Depending on what those worries are, you might also find it helpful to come up with action plans and solutions, but just processing your anxieties and fears might be helpful on its own. Try calling up a friend who you always find comforting or doing a mindful meditation to help bring your thoughts into the moment, and focusing on what you can take care of right now instead of in the uncertain future, Arnedt says.
10. Try to accept that basically anything and everything is normal right now, including your sleep issues. It’s normal to lie awake in bed thinking about all the things you wish you could do: save the world, get a new job, hug a friend, whatever feels important in the moment. It’s also super normal to wake up during the night and then have trouble falling back asleep as the same worries and wishes come rushing back. The key is to recognize that these are truly unnatural times and sometimes your body and mind just aren’t going to cooperate with your need to sleep, Kennedy says. It’s better to try to accept it than stress yourself out about it even more.
What it all comes down to is that so much is happening right now and there’s no right way to handle it. So be extra kind to yourself. “You should be able to say, ‘I feel bad right now. My body feels shitty. I can’t focus. I don’t feel motivated to clean out my closet. That’s where I am. I need to make space for that,’” Kennedy says. “That is a normal reaction to the trauma we’re all experiencing. The more you tell yourself that you’re experiencing this wrong, the more stressed you’ll get.”
So, whether you go to bed super late, decide you need to sleep in, wake up often, or feel like you’re doing it “wrong” in some other way, try to remind yourself that basically all parts of life, including sleep, might feel off for a bit. Personally, I’m giving myself a pass for my 2 a.m. bedtimes and always reading (no matter how late I actually get in bed) until I can no longer keep my eyes open. For now, I’m reminding myself that every day is a new day—even if they seem to play on repeat right now.