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Between COVID-19 and the exigent reality of police brutality, it’s safe to say we’re losing sleep right now. In the best of times, a third of U.S. adults report not getting enough sleep—the CDC recommends 7+ hours per night— and sleep deprivation can lead to mental and physical health problems including depression, heart disease, and diabetes. Add in global trauma and the dissolution of most of our day-to-day routines, and you’ve got “a perfect storm of sleep problems,” in the words of featured speaker Donn Posner at a Public Health forum for Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Meet the Expert
Donn Posner is the president of Sleepwell Associates and an adjunct clinical associate professor at Stanford University School of Medicine.
Ironically, we need sleep now more than ever: We can’t do important work and stay safe if we aren’t taking care of ourselves, and among a myriad of health benefits, getting a full night of Zzzzs offers timely perks like mood stabilization and a boosted immune system. For insight on just how our sleep has been affected at large, and intel on how to get a disrupted sleep schedule back on track, I spoke with two experts about common sleep problems and how to solve them. Read on for their tips for normalizing your sleep, even in decidedly abnormal times.
Disrupted Sleep Can Manifest in Several Ways
One of the biggest hurdles to consistent and restful sleep is that there isn’t just one disorder—disrupted sleep can manifest in several ways. “The most common sleep trends we are seeing are a drastic change in sleep schedules [and] oversleeping, as well as vivid dreams and difficulty sleeping,” says Bill Fish, a certified sleep science coach and the managing editor of SleepFoundation.org. I’ve personally found myself barely able to sleep one night, only to oversleep the next, followed by a night of anxiety dreams; it can feel especially futile to combat an issue when it feels so hard to pin down.
There are also a few different reasons why our bodies are having such a hard time getting rest. “Stress and anxiety directly affect sleep. The pandemic and the protests are causing a lot of distress for many people and this shows up in our sleep,” says Annie Miller, a psychotherapist, behavioral sleep medicine provider, and owner of DC Metro Sleep and Psychotherapy. “Stress affects us all differently and for some it looks like insomnia, while for others it appears as a need for more sleep or intense dreams.”
Meet the Expert
- Bill Fish is a certified sleep science coach and the managing editor of SleepFoundation.org. Previously, he designed and constructed mattresses for sale online.
- Annie Miller is a licensed clinical social worker and practicing psychotherapist who uses evidence-based treatments to help adolescent and adult clients with anxiety, depression, insomnia, trauma, and chronic pain/illness. Her techniques include EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing and CBT-i (cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia).
Being Inside More (And Screen Time) Can Affect Your Sleep Schedule
Not only are emotions running high, but the pandemic has influenced our physiology, as well: Miller notes that “Being inside more and having less exposure to sunlight affects our circadian rhythm. Many of us are missing out on these cues as we stay inside so much of the time.” We’re also more likely to stay up late as our schedules have shifted to accommodate unemployment or working from home, and we’ve drastically increased our screen time. (There’s ample evidence that exposure to the blue light from screens can powerfully shift our natural circadian rhythm, which explains how you find yourself exhaustedly scrolling Instagram until 5am.) Plus, many of us now have little incentive to leave our beds. “More time spent at home has led to people spending more time reading, watching TV or working in bed,” says Miller. “Doing other activities in bed [besides sleep] can increase insomnia symptoms.” Now that the causes of disordered sleep are clear – how can you reset your circadian rhythm to actually feel rested? Both Miller and Fish suggested a two-fold strategy: focus on your space, and stay on schedule.
Reserving Your Bed for Sleep Is Key
You’ve probably heard it before, but the experts’ first word of advice is tried and true: Reserving your bed for sleep is key. Fish recommends turning your bedroom into a sleep sanctuary: “Discontinue the use of your phone at least 45 minutes prior to going to bed, and charge all devices in another room. When you come into your room for bed, clean up the room and close all closet doors. Our minds tend to race with clutter, keeping the room tidy will help you relax. Make the room cool and as dark as possible, lastly investing in a white noise machine can mask ambient sounds that may have a tendency to wake you during the night. Following these tips gives you the best chance at a great night of sleep and ready to attack the day.”
When it comes time to strategizing your snoozes, Miller emphasizes that consistency is key, even when we want to overcorrect for a bad night’s sleep: “We often think we should ‘catch up’ on sleep over the weekend or if we have a bad night of sleep. But in fact, that can make insomnia worse by creating what's called social jetlag.” She adds, “It is important to keep your wake up time consistent and understand that you may be tired in the short term, but this will build up sleep drive and eventually allow you to fall asleep faster at night.” Building up a reliable schedule now, when it can feel like everything is in flux, is especially important; Fish recommends making gradual but real changes to your sleep schedule now so that your body isn’t shocked when you suddenly have to be up for your 8am commute: “We are going to go back to work at some point, so it is imperative to get back on track and allow yourself the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep on a nightly basis.”
Take Your Time When Adjusting Your Sleep Schedule
If you’re looking to totally reset your current sleep habits—something I’m seriously considering—Fish suggests returning to the habits our ancestors: “Since the beginning of time, man has rested in the dark and worked in the sunlight, and even with the invention of electricity almost 250 years ago, it is still natural for humans to do the same. Thus, if your schedule allows, it is most natural to go to bed eight hours before the rise of the sun.” Of course, a major shift like this won’t happen, ahem, overnight—Fish reiterates that it’s important to take your time when adjusting your schedule, to prevent a yo-yo effect that could leave you frustrated and burnt out when you’re trying to be your most rested. “When changing your sleep schedule, it will take some time, so we recommend gradually changing your schedule by no more than 15 minutes per day to allow your mind and body to adjust.”
For those who aren’t ready to rise at dawn, Miller offers a slightly different, but equally effective approach: “There is not an exact schedule that works for everyone, and it is more important to be consistent,” she says. “Start with setting a wake-up time that you can stick to every day. People tend to think they need to go to bed early, but that may not necessarily be the best choice for you. It’s also important to keep in mind that you may not need 8 hours of sleep. Sleep is not one-size-fits all.” Find out what schedule works for you – a diary or sleep app may come in handy for logging your Zzzs – and then stick to those hours.
The Bottom Line
While there are many ways to take action towards a better night’s sleep, a final word of advice from the experts was an unexpected call to do less: basically, it’s okay to stop stressing. As Miller puts it, “Finally, stop trying to sleep. When we put too much effort into sleep, it backfires. Spending time in bed trying to sleep can make insomnia worse.” If you find yourself staring at the ceiling and criticising your overactive brain, she recommends taking a non-judgemental break from bed: “If you can’t sleep, get up and out of bed. Do something quiet until you feel really sleepy. Sleep should be effortless and we should eliminate any time spent trying to sleep.”