As if we weren't dealing with enough right now, it seems that the dark cloud of Covid is messing with our sleep too, with our shut-eye emerging as the latest casualty of the Corona virus crisis. It’s even got a name with sleep experts calling it “Coronasomnia”. Medical journals have been reporting on the increased prevalence of sleep disorders, with studies examining the detrimental effects on sleep resulting from isolation, varying degrees of quarantine, anxiety, stress and financial worries.
Too many sleepless nights can exacerbate both physical and mental health problems, but a few tweaks to our already altered routines may help to resolve bedtime issues before they snowball.
Here’s a list of suggestions that we have compiled from experts' advice to help steer you away from toss/turn and toward forty winks.
1. Avoid napping. It may seem counterintuitive after a lost night’s sleep but try to think of naps like snacks - nap for longer than 20 minutes or late in the day and it may spoil your sleep “appetite”. Same goes for sleeping late on weekends - experts say that trying to compensate for lost sleep only further disrupts your regular rhythms.
2. Try an app. Regardless of the cause, insomnia is inextricably linked to anxiety. While it's completely normal to wake during the night two to three times, the difference is that people with normal sleep patterns - who either don't have anxiety or manage it well - just fall asleep again. However, if you’re anxious (and nothing gonna make you anxious like a global pandemic and all the issues that accompany it), that anxiety can cause you to stay awake longer and then not be able to fall into sleep again. Anxiety can also render that lighter sleep (that which occurs in the final two thirds of your slumber) so light that any small noise or light source can have you awake again. Sometimes you need a little structure to get to, and address the root cause of your insomnia. There are two apps we can recommend with some confidence (we’ve used them both).
Calm.com is a the #1 app for sleep, meditation and relaxation. Since its launch it has been downloaded over 100 million times and it’s won a slew of awards to back up its 1.5M 5-star reviews. It boasts hundreds of meditation practices and sleep stories that are written and recorded by some of the top experts to help calm you and quiet your mind before bed. But you won’t just find is useful for promoting healthy sleep, it also has guided Daily Calm sessions, to help unwind and refocus your attention. Some of us here (ahem, me) found it brilliant in times when procrastination takes over from productivity.
There are also music tracks, specifically engineered to help you focus, relax or sleep. Our favourites are the celebrity-narrated “sleep stories” and the nature sounds - you’ll find that it’s hard to be anxious whilst listening to the breeze rustle through long, dry grass or the soft rain falling on leaves. There is even a downloadable sleep journal to help you chart your sleep and give you suggestions to promote healthier patterns. We think the Calm app is best for those who find falling asleep difficult.
The other app we love is sleepio.com - it is a 6 week online program designed by sleep experts based on cognitive and behavioural techniques. There are six online weekly cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) sessions that run through everything from very sensible suggestions regarding adjustments to your sleep environment to techniques to counteract and combat negative thoughts that end up becoming loud chatter in your wide-awake brain at 2am.
It’s been researched by the likes of the University of Oxford and Harvard Medical School and is currently backed by the NHS and free to download in some parts of the UK. We love its scientific and structured approach. It will not replace face-to-face CBT sessions but it’s a very good place to start. It takes some effort and it requires you to commit to making some lifestyle changes but it’s a good place to start for long-lasting change. We think the Sleepio app is best for those who are all ‘round struggling to get or to stay asleep.
3. Create a “wind down” routine for a certain time each night and stick to it. Re-establishing good sleep often comes down to creating a pre-bed routine for at least 6 weeks and then trying to keep at it. Your “wind down” can be whatever works for you - removing your make up and giving yourself a 3-5 minute facial massage with some great smelling organic facial oil, taking a bath or a shower, meditating - even if it’s for five minutes - or reading. We find that slow stretching as part of a wind down routine is hugely beneficial - done correctly it can be a form of focused meditation which can be both physically and mentally relaxing. There are loads of free Youtube tutorials for pre-bed stretches that are great. Avoid television if you can. Sorry - that box set is not going to help.
The aim is to build a routine that is easy to maintain that helps you switch off from the day. To make the most of it, we suggest turning off devices 30 to 60 minutes before bed, partly because there is good evidence that the blue light emitted can switch off the natural sleep hormone melatonin. This is tricky if you’re using an app like Calm or Sleepio but we recommend turning your phone OFF straight after your guided mediation. That’s right, OFF. It’ll make it less tempting to tune into the news or social media or worse still, work. We also recommend buying a ye olde alarm clock instead of using your phone and perhaps putting your phone in a drawer out of each for the night or even in a separate room but certainly to avoid using it once you’re settling down to sleep.
4. Darkness. We’re going to mention melatonin again. Darkness in the evening encourages the release of melatonin which times the healthy onset of your sleep cycle. Experts say a very dark room is best for good sleep hygiene yet, modern life means that all evening we are bathed in artificial light from screens, phones and overhead lighting. All this light blocks the normal release of melatonin and your brain gets confused - not knowing it is night-time and time for sleep. It’s pretty unlikely that neanderthal man had issues with insomnia!
You should make sure your bedroom is dark. Try to dim down the lights in your home as part of your “wind down” routine about 30-60 minutes before bed, avoid screens and finally, use a sleep mask (we like silk ones, natch) to give you the best shot at darkness.
5. Keep a rhythm. Covid has mean that a lot of us don’t need the strict routines we once had - no trains to catch and for a lot of us, in the past year, no needing to get the kids to school! However, good sleep is linked to a steady routine or rhythm.
It’s established that, even if our routines have moved, we should try to go to bed and wake up at about the same time every day, regardless of whether it is a weekday or the weekend, or whether the night before was spent in a hellish cycle of toss and turn. You body likes the signal that it has a regular time for being awake and for sleeping. A lot of us set alarms to wake up, but if you’re new to establishing a sleep regime, it can also be useful to set an alarm for bedtime. Remember as a kid you had a set ‘bedtime’? Go back to that - it’s not just small humans that like a routine.
6. Get on up - this is a tough one. If you wake up during the night, don’t stay in bed for any more than 25 minutes. Your brain is eminently susceptible to being trained and you don’t want it to learn that being in bed is about being awake. The best thing to do is to get on up. If you can, read a book under a dim light in a different room. Another great tip is a Rubik’s cube. Children of the 80s will remember these. Those little cubes can take your entire focus. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to focus on anxiety or the fact that you are awake in the middle of the night while solving the puzzle and for a lot of people it’s less taxing that reading. This is also where listening to a guided meditation may help calm you back to being sleepy. Only get back into bed when you are drowsy and feel ready for sleep. That way, that easy-to-train brain will start to associate laying in bed with a a healthy sleep.
7. Keep it cool.
In order for us to fall asleep and stay asleep, our body’s core temperature needs to drop. It is always easier to fall asleep in a room that’s too cold rather than too hot so try to keep temperatures in your bedroom cool at night. Experts say the most optimal level is just a smidgen above 17°C. We recommend sleeping with a little bit of fresh air circulating if possible. This is of course difficult in the dead of winter but throughout most of the year, you should be able to sleep with your window slightly ajar. Pyjamas in natural fibres like silk, cotton and linen go a long way to help regulate body temperate. We would say this though, wouldn’t we?
8. Skip the nightcap and the coffee.
This is such a boring tip but the science says that both booze and caffeine interfere with healthy sleep.
Caffeine is a known stimulant - it can make it harder to fall asleep, can stop you getting to the the soundest, deepest sleep of the sleep cycle, and can cause early morning awakenings. That 4am wake up could be down to that 4pm cuppa.
By contrast, alcohol, is a sedative. But let’s be clear, sedation is not sleep and it does not induce naturalistic deep sleep. The kind that rejuvenates us. Further, alcohol does a very good job of blocking deep REM sleep and that’s just the kind we want because it’s vital for many body and brain functions. To put the last nail in the coffin of that ‘relaxing’ glass of wine, it can actually cause you to wake many times in the night, and leave you feeling unrestored by sleep the next day.
So, we're sad to say that whilst you are re-establishing healthy sleep patterns, you should avoid that afternoon coffee or tea (anytime after midday) and steer clear of alcohol.
A lack of sleep can make life really, really tough. If you are struggling and have tried to establish a routine as above with no success, please see your GP and ask for help.