7 Tips for Better Sleep During the Pandemic
A perceived threat, stress or even a change in routine can disrupt our sleep patterns. Photo: Adam Hester/Getty Images
Sweet dreams? Doubtful. If you’re like me, you can’t even escape the stress of COVID-19 in your sleep.
After reporting about the pandemic each day, by night I often find my subconscious self attempting to protect loved ones from the virus while also trying in vain to complete unfinished work.
Like everyone, the pandemic now dominates how I live my life — day and night. Thinking that I may not be alone, I went looking for help.
The first thing I discovered is that those dreams costing me sleep are actually nightmares.
“A nightmare is anything disturbing, that can even sometimes affect your daytime functioning, and where you’re having difficulty falling back to sleep.” says Katherine Rasmussen, Director of the Behavioural Sleep Medicine Program at Calgary’s Centre for Sleep & Human Performance.
For persistent nightmares, Rasmussen’s clinic offers imagery rehearsal therapy (IRT), a cognitive behavioural treatment that can include creating detailed, non-frightening endings for nightmares patients have repeatedly.
But for me, repetition isn’t so much the issue. It’s that the backstory is consistent and stressful.
Rasmussen says I’m suffering from hyperarousal and that can make getting to sleep, and staying asleep, difficult.
“In the past, [this] fight-or-flight response evolved as a survival mechanism allowing us to react to the sabre tooth tiger, the animal attacks or fires or floods. But any situation that we perceive as threatening can set it off. So it can be things like pandemics — or even a traffic jam or family stress,” she says.
And then she offered a few strategies that can help.
Maintain a Healthy Routine
“Humans are creatures of habit. We like routine. And when we fall out of a routine, we can undergo stress. And so, making sure that you’re getting up at around the same time every day, you have a regular bedtime, and regular mealtimes.”
“Getting outside or doing some form of exercise during the day is very important, not just for routine, but our body fights stress better when we’re strong and exercise helps.”
Just as she’s a fan of lifelong learning, Rasmussen also believes in lifelong physical activity.
“It could be going for a long walk, it could be doing household chores, but it’s what we know deepens sleep — and it helps to preserve that slow wave [deep] sleep as we age.”
Eat Whole and Vitamin C-Rich Foods
“Vitamin C is most highly concentrated in the adrenal glands. It is most quickly depleted by stress. And vitamin C is also important to the immune system.”
What isn’t great for the immune system, however, is sugar.
“So staying away from junk foods and energy drinks and excess alcohol and things like this. [Have] whole foods and vitamin C-rich foods and good sources of protein.”
What about chocolate (I ask with fingers crossed)?
“Well, you know, the dark chocolate actually has some good stuff in there. But try to avoid taking it too close to bedtime because it does have caffeine.”
Boost Relaxation Before Bed
“The relaxation response helps to lower blood pressure, or heart rate. It helps to decrease that hyperarousal I talked about, and [stress] hormones. Some very common techniques would be things like yoga, deep breathing, meditation and guided imagery.”
She adds that, “Guided imagery is where you visualize a place, and it could be a real place from your childhood or a wonderful memory or it could be imaginary place, but in this place you experience a deep sense of well-being and relaxation.”
Does flipping through your favourite travel magazine or scrolling through Instagram count?
“It’s important that it’s something your brain does. You’re pulling the senses inward and you’re using the power of your imagination to put yourself in that peaceful state. If you’re some place with a first, you’re smelling the pine trees. Some people find it more helpful to listen to an audio recording where it’s guided. Whatever’s easiest for the person.”
“A healthy sleep schedule [includes] winding down two hours before bed. To reduce some mental stimulation and also, limiting any kind of light exposure in that last two hours before bed is very important to support the circadian rhythm.”
And when it comes time to wake up, morning light, Rasmussen points out, is the strongest cue to our circadian rhythm.
“For older individuals in particular, make sure you are getting that morning light. So turning on that bright light in the kitchen or going outside for that morning light is important.”
What about checking the news (a job hazard for me)?
“You know, you might check it in the morning and you might check it before dinner or you might watch it in the evening, but not in the last couple of hours before bedtime. So, just putting some boundaries around that.”
And what about reading before bed?
“So here’s the thing, if you’re reading for hours in bed, probably not such a great thing because you’re beginning to associate your bedroom with a daytime activity. Having said that, many people find it very soothing — they might’ve been read to as little children and they find it very soothing [still] to crack open a book for 15 or 20 minutes and then they fall asleep.”
“One thing, especially for people who are older, is to consider a little nap for under 30 minutes, and to finish that nap at least eight hours before bedtime. We know sleep does naturally fragment more as we get older [and] we do get less slow wave sleep. And a way of recouping any sleep that might’ve been lost is to have a strategic nap.”
As I thank Katherine at the end of our call, it reminds us both about gratitude.
“That’s a big part of my practice actually. When we are in a state of gratitude, it’s hard to be in a negative state. So gratitude could be part of your pre-sleep routine or part of your morning routine.”
She notes that, “doing acts of kindness also puts us in a very positive state. It moves us outside of ourselves and takes us away from our anxieties and fears because we’re putting our focus on somebody else. These are little strategies that I find can be helpful now, too.”
I am grateful for her advice. And I am also grateful to share it.