Are you struggling with sleep and coronavirus anxiety? New stressors, such as losing a job, working from home, being quarantined at home, home-schooling our kids, or attending virtual meetings, require new sleep practices in order to get a quality night’s sleep.
While being quarantined at home, it’s not easy to function at our best without access to our usual coping skills such as exercise, spending time with friends, going out to eat, or going to a movie.
The Washington Post-ABC News Poll
According to an April 3, 2020 article in The Washington Post, in late March, even before the novel coronavirus (also known as COVID-19) had reached the frightening benchmark of infecting more than 1 million people worldwide, 77 percent of American women and 61 percent of men were reporting personal stress.
In this article, Jelena Kecmanovic, a founding director of the Arlington/DC Behavior Therapy Institute, stated that most adults recognize that persistent worry and physical sensations like an increased heart rate, sweating, gastrointestinal distress, muscle tension and throat tightness, are brought on from anxiety. But she said they might not understand the ways anxiety fuels other problems, such as difficulties with focus, memory, sleep and relationships.
Connection Between Sleep and Coronavirus Anxiety
At the best of times, sleep comes with a long list of health benefits. It reduces inflammation, stress, and lessens the risk of depression, improves cognitive function, and helps the body repair itself and ward off illness, as seen in my article, “Heal While You Sleep – Adults“.
The impact of this pandemic has huge economic, health and social impacts, all of which can influence the way we sleep.
Right now, amid COVID-19, a good night’s sleep has never been more important, but many people are struggling to get their eight hours, especially eight hours of quality sleep. Living through a global pandemic has brought added stress, fear, and even grief for many people. Typically, this emotional toll affects sleep first.
Sleep disturbances, characterized by abnormal sleep patterns that interfere with physical, mental, and emotional functioning, such as financial fears may keep us up at night. Sleep disturbances can also include bad dreams and difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep.
Optimal sleep helps regulate mood, improve brain function, and increase energy and overall productivity during the day.
Can Sleep Help My Immune System Fight The Coronavirus?
Ample sleep supports the immune system, which reduces the risk of infection and improves outcomes for fighting illnesses. On the other hand, sleep deprivation weakens the body’s defense system and makes us more vulnerable to contracting illnesses.
Instead of worrying, we can focus our energy on what we can control, such as our sleep health.
Coronavirus Anxiety Can Lead To Insomnia
Coronavirus anxiety can lead to insomnia. Other problems like fragmented sleep and disturbing dreams, or nightmares can be common now, too.
Sleeplessness or Insomnia
We may experience a range of sleep problems when we’re anxious, such as difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, which is called insomnia. We can also experience middle-of-the-night awakenings with the mind racing, and having a hard time falling back asleep. The less sleep we get, the stronger our anxiety can become. Anxiety over how to pay the bills, our children’s schooling, getting infected, the health of loved ones, or being stuck inside and feeling isolated, may be the main cause of our insomnia. Since coronavirus anxiety doesn’t seem to be subsiding for most of us, we mentally remain on high alert, which can keep us up at night, or wake us up with racing thoughts.
The relationship between stress and sleep issues is complex, but studies have shown that stress affects various neurotransmitters that impact the brain. Increased cortisol, a hormone released by the adrenal glands, which is elevated as part of the stress response, may be of particular importance as to how well we sleep.
These chemicals shift the sleep-wake balance in the brain, which can increase sleep fragmentation and lead to insomnia and increased dreaming. Let’s take a look at two sleep-related conditions below, related to insomnia.
Anxiety levels are high during the coronavirus pandemic, which may lead to fragmented sleep and unusual sleep schedules. If we can fall asleep without too much trouble at bedtime, but experience many brief awakenings throughout the night, this is known as sleep fragmentation. It’s often caused by major stressors, such as anxiety.
Many of our routines have been severely disrupted by COVID-19, so as we spend more time at home, we may have increased family or relationship stress. Our normal outlets to reduce stress, such as exercise, may be limited or absent because of our sheltering in place, so as our brains processes all this information during sleep, we may have more nighttime awakenings or fragmented sleep.
Nightmares Or Disturbing Dreams
Vivid, disturbing dreams, what most people call nightmares, are closely linked to frequent night-time awakenings, the sleep docs say. There is a connection between anxiety and disturbing dreams.
Dreaming is a characterization of rapid eye movement, (REM) sleep, as discussed in my article, “Sleep Patterns for Adults – What’s Normal?”, as well as a faster pulse rate and breathing, which happens at intervals during the night.
Waking from REM sleep will lead to the recall of these disturbing dreams, and stress may also cause increased dream recall. We may not actually be having more disturbing dreams than usual, but just remembering them more because we’re waking up more often throughout the night.
Daily Problems Resulting From Insomnia
Insomnia, or sleepiness, can affect our day-to-day well-being, such as our alertness and our responsiveness to our daily experiences. Let’s take a look at these problem areas and the steps we can take to address them.
1. Difficulty Focusing
Because the coronavirus threatens our health, livelihoods, and our way of life, we are consumed by reading and watching news about it and thinking about ways to protect ourselves from it.
The problem is that we might also be working from home, or home-schooling our kids, for example. “The brain can do only so much. When our attention is absorbed by coronavirus, we will have a harder time concentrating on anything else we are trying to do in the moment,” said Jonathan Abramowitz, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina.
See the ‘Bedtime Routine’ paragraph below explaining writing a to-do list. Our concentration will become more focused as we follow our to-do lists. Then be kind to ourselves, accepting that it is completely normal for our functioning to be compromised during coronavirus anxiety.
Another way to keep ourselves focused and less distracted is by limiting our consumption of news, including social media. Limit our time to two to three pre-scheduled times a day, not to cumulatively exceed one hour.
This is a time when many of us may also have difficulty remembering and managing relevant information, maybe from a business phone call we just had, or a discussion of our kid’s online learning.
These are tasks that require what psychologists call working memory. Anxiety adversely affects this type of memory.
“Anything that relaxes you will also help with memory, as relaxation engages the parasympathetic nervous system,” said Aleksandra Parpura, a gerontologist and the founder of Aging Perspectives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
Doing relaxing activities that are engaging and that keep us focused are particularly helpful. If we find exercise, spending time outside in the open air, crossword puzzles, crafts, board games or playing the piano relaxing, make sure to find some time to devote to these activities.
3. Increased Irritability And Anger
Coronavirus anxiety can also fuel irritability and anger, and can be worse because of not getting quality sleep. Unfortunately, our relationships with partners, children and co-workers can suffer as a result during a time we need to rely on them most.
The first step in preventing our anxiety from hurting our relationships is noticing and acknowledging the anxiety before it turns into anger. Once we catch ourselves feeling angry, we can choose to either temporarily distance ourselves from others and use a calming strategy on our own, or share those feelings with the people in our surroundings.
If we decide to share our anxious thoughts and emotions with others, don’t be afraid to expose our vulnerability. People react much better to us when we’re vulnerable than they do when we’re angry. And those who are on the receiving end of their dear ones expressing anxiety, need to try their best to listen, validate their feelings and concerns, and then ask how they can help.
Alternatively, we can engage in a vigorous cardio exercise, such as running up and down the stairs. This can serve to expel excess energy, which is characteristic of both anxiety and anger.
Also, to help ourselves relax, try slowly and deeply breathing by moving our stomachs and keeping our chests still, making sure that we exhale twice as long as we inhale. Or visualize a safe, beautiful place, preferably one that we can remember visiting, and imagine ourselves moving through it, focusing on how we felt during that experience.
What Can Help Me Sleep Better?
Quality sleep is crucial during this time of coronavirus anxiety. Follow these simple daytime tasks, which actually prepare our minds and bodies for bedtime sleep later.
- Keep our daytime activities on a somewhat regular schedule. Try to keep things as they were before the threat of COVID-19.
- Soak up the sun early in the day. Doing so can help keep our circadian rhythm (sleep-wake cycle) in check, while also boosting our immune system.
- Stay physically active or exercise. When we’re stuck at home, it can be a challenge to exercise. Be creative in your activity, or take a walk. Exercise expends energy to help us sleep better at night.
- Limit ourselves to the news including social media, to two or three pre-scheduled times a day.
- Maintain our meal times.
- Take office work out of the bedroom. Now that people are working at home, set up a separate room for a workstation, and keep work and sleep separate, so our minds and bodies will associate the bed with sleeping.
- Minimize naps. Daytime sleep should be less than 30 minutes and taken before 3 p.m. If we have any trouble falling asleep at night, avoid napping.
Structure our daytime schedule. Commit to daily activities, such as exercise, meals and socializing, at certain times to build structure to our days. This will support a regular bedtime and wake time and increase our quality of sleep.
Maintain a consistent sleep-wake routine, as this helps stabilize sleep patterns.
- Remove visible alarm clocks, or turn them around so the bright light doesn’t distract us while sleeping.
- Set a cell phone reminder to start our one-hour-before-sleep preparation.
- Practice a wind-down time one hour before bedtime to promote good sleep. Try eating a small complex carbohydrate snack, take a hot relaxing bath or shower, or read a book.
- Turn off our TVs and computer screens and all electronic devices an hour before bedtime to avoid the bright lights.
- Leave our cell phone charging in the kitchen, so we won’t be tempted to look at COVID-19 updates during the night.
- Turn off the news at least one hour before bed. It’s important not to be exposed to anxiety-provoking news before bedtime.
- Write down a list of things on our minds one hour before bedtime. Doing this can mitigate insomnia or sleeplessness.
- Write down a to-do list for tomorrow an hour before bedtime. Rank the tasks in order of importance. Schedule specific times when to do the most important and urgent tasks.
- Keep business work out of the bedroom. Set up a different room for office work. Keep business and sleep in separate rooms, so our minds and bodies will associate the bed with sleeping.
- Avoid using alcohol or caffeine to fall asleep to avoid sleep fragmentation, early morning awakenings, and daytime impairments.
- Make sure our bedroom environments are conducive to sleep. Keep the bedroom cool, dark and quiet.
- Wear an eye mask or blackout shades to make the room darker for less distractions.
- Wear earplugs for sleeping, or a white noise machine to block out extraneous noises.
- While in bed, do breathing exercises to help fall asleep. Take ten slow deep breaths to fall asleep and ten slow deep breaths to return to sleep when we awaken temporarily.
Experiment with different amounts of sleep, then prioritize that amount of sleep each night. While six or nine hours can be appropriate for some adults, most need seven to eight hours. We are not obliged to late night social activities during this pandemic, so getting to bed on time is more realistic. Take advantage of that.
Creating a bedtime routine can have a super calming, almost meditative effect on our mental, emotional, and physical state.
If We’re Over Sleeping
Avoid sleeping in, or over sleeping. If we’re over sleeping, it’s likely because our overall schedule has changed. Some people are working from home, and therefore, don’t have to wake up as early to get ready or deal with their daily commute. Others are unfortunately out of work and might not have a familiar structure to their day.
It’s important, however, to practice the daytime and bedtime routines that I’ve shared above, which will help keep our bodies on a more natural sleep-wake schedule, making us more ready for a good quality sleep at bedtime.
Comfy Mattress and Pillows
I would be amiss if I didn’t mention how important a comfortable mattress and comfortable pillows are in contributing to a good night’s sleep during this time of coronavirus anxiety.
- I encourage you to read my article, “Natural Cures for Insomnia – For Adults“, which specifically addresses the importance of a good mattress and pillow.
- Another article I wrote displays how to enhance the best sleeping positions with an assortment of pillow positions for sleeping on our backs, sleeping on our sides, sleeping in fetal positions, sleeping on our stomachs, or sleeping in reclined positions is in my article, “Lower Back Pain When Sleeping – To The Rescue“.
- Also, as written in my article, “Neck Pain and Sleeping – To The Rescue“, I’ve inserted a great, but short, demonstration video by two physical therapists who illustrate various pillow positions for maximum neck and back support.
What Else Do I Need To Know About My Sleep?
While sleep is important, try not to fret about it. Worrying about sleep just turns into more stress. Instead, let’s just do our best to get to bed on time and follow the daytime and bedtime routine tips I listed.
Right now, amid COVID-19, a good night’s sleep has never been more important. We need to keep our immune systems strong, and keep our minds clear and able to make good day-to-day choices and decisions.
By consistently practicing the daytime and bedtime routines during our coronavirus anxiety, we should see improvements in our sleep.
Getting a good night’s sleep will help us to focus better during the day, to remember things better, to not get angry as easily, to keep our immune systems strong, and to minimize our disturbing dreams.
What I’ve learned from doing research for writing this post: The realization of knowing that so many people worldwide are affected by poor sleep and coronavirus anxiety, that my heart goes out to you.
In one small way, if sharing this article helps you get a good night’s sleep, then that makes me feel like I’ve had a part in helping you with your sleep health.
Thank you for visiting this page. I hope you’ll be back to read more articles, as I continue the diverse topic of sleep. Together we can continue to learn how to increase our qualities of sleep, and thus, increase our qualities of life.
In the comments area below, please share your thoughts on how you’re dealing with sleep deprivation during this pandemic, or leave your questions, and I’ll write you back. I would love to hear from you.
Happy Deep Sleep until we meet again. Bye, bye for now.