A quick search on Google trends yesterday revealed a 20% uplift in searches for ‘insomnia’ and ‘sleep help’ on Google compared with April last year. All around the globe people are struggling with sleep.
I’ve also seen bucketloads of sensible sleep advice out there, but just in case you've missed it, I’ve done my best to summarise my top 10 bits of sleep advice here...
1. Reassure yourself that sleep disruption is normal, and it will pass
Our brains respond to uncertainty by becoming more vigilant. We’re on a higher alertness setting, day and night, and less able to drift into the deeper, more restorative phases of sleep. This makes it harder to switch off, and when we do sleep, we’re more likely to get woken up during the night, and sleep is less restorative.
Humans are brilliantly adaptive, and as we start to accept these new norms, sleep will start to become deeper again. Of course, changes in our daytime routine, less movement, less social contact and less daylight also have the potential to disrupt our sleep, but there is plenty we can do in response..
2. Take control where you can: get up at the same time each day
If you wake, exercise, eat and sleep at similar times each day, 7 days a week, all the body's systems will be working in sync with each other. Melatonin, the 'ready-for-bed' hormone, will kick in at the same time each night, and reward you with a more restorative sleep. You’ll start to wake up at the same time without an alarm, and feel more energised in the morning. A regular routine can also help with anxiety - if you know what is coming next, there is less time to get distracted by worry.
3. Use natural Zeitgebers to get going in the morning
Natural light has a powerful alerting effect on the brain. In addition to daylight, food and exercise are also ‘Zeitgebers’ (time givers) which give your body clock a bit of a wake up call. To feel more energised in the morning, schedule your exercise early, ideally outside, and don't skip breakfast. Sit by a window to make the most of the sunlight. To help your body prepare for sleep at night, dim the lights, avoid vigorous activity, and try to stop eating 2 hours before you get into bed.
4. Relaxation is a skill which needs practice, and you can start now
Relaxation is the skill of switching off the stress response, physically and mentally. What really helps you relax? We’re all different, but mindfulness, progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, long hot baths, colouring in, listening to music.. any of these could help. Many companies with online relaxation tools have made free content available in response to Covid19, including Headspace 'Wethering the Storm', Calm's Covid-19 Hub.
If you don’t know where to start with relaxation. Start now. Take a deep breath in through your nose and fill your belly - imagine you’re filling a balloon. Pause. Slowly exhale - deflate the balloon completely. Enjoy the sensation of tension leaving the body. Repeat. If you practice a bit of relaxation during the day, it’ll be easier for your brain and body to return to a place of rest at night.
5. We’re in this together - you’re not alone
A recent study from China from the early days of Covid19 found that those who scored highly for social participation and belonging had better sleep quality in confinement. Loneliness is partly down to mindset; you can be surrounded by people but still feel lonely, but it’s also possible to be living in strict self-isolation and still feel connected. Sleep deprivation can lead to social withdrawal. When you’re tired and anxious, having a chat with friends or family may not appeal, but it may be exactly what you need.
Connecting through social media is unlikely to have the same quality of connection as a live phone or video call, and if you’re lucky enough to find a hug, that’s even better. Oxytocin, the so-called kindness hormone, is great for reversing the effects of stress. If there are no people around you, stroking a pet or even watching a feel good film which is full of love and kindness can evoke the release of oxytocin.
6. Set aside time for deliberate and purposeful worry
When there is so much going on, some worry is inevitable, but you can keep it manageable by time-boxing it into a specific slot in your day, e.g. for 15 minutes, each afternoon at 2pm. During that time, write down what is worrying you. Worry as much as you can. Some of these worries are actionable, and you could put a plan in place to deal with one of those. Other worries are hypothetical, and it’s OK to acknowledge these, and let them go.
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. You may also find that by writing things down, they lose their potency.
7. Protect your bedroom for sleep and sex
When you’re at home all day, it may be tempting to use that lovely comfy bed as an office, a dining table, or even a den if you’re playing with (or hiding from) the kids. For a restful night’s sleep, you want your brain to associate the bed with sleep and intimacy only. If you live in a one bedroom flat, or studio, change the appearance of the bed with a different bedcover or cushions during the day vs. night, so that the brain registers a transition to night time.
8. I know you know that your phone won’t help. Keep it outside the bedroom.
Typically, levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, dip to an all time low at night, and levels of the 'ready-to-sleep' hormone, melatonin, increase as it gets dark. If you use your phone or laptop to check on the latest c-virus stats before you go to bed (again...) you're getting a double whammy interference with sleep: 1) bright light, which delays melatonin production 2) psychological stress, which can up cortisol levels and delay melatonin further
If you find this hard, do an experiment. Just 3 days. Set a reminder now to switch off at 9pm and don’t look again until 8am. Read a book instead. Just 3 days..
9. Think positive before bed - what are you grateful for?
How you spend the final 30 minutes of the day matters to your sleep. Parents will know that wind down rituals, with the same activities, in the same order, can help prepare kids for sleep. A relaxing bath or shower, reading a book, or listening to calming music, can all help reduce muscle tension and get you ready for sleep.
Before you switch out the light, try writing down, or swapping with your partner the 3 things you're most grateful for that day. Gratitude is a great antidote for anxiety.
10. If you can't really can't sleep, stop trying.
We've all been there.. the harder you try and sleep, the more you worry about not sleeping.. the harder it becomes. You can create the right conditions for sleep, but you can't force it. 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 after 20 minutes or so. Your bed should never be a battleground. So if your body is not ready to sleep, or you wake up wide awake, get out of bed and do a relaxing activity somewhere else in your home until your eyelids are heavy.. only then get back into bed.