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Ask an Expert: How do you get sleep in the midst of a pandemic?

by Apr. 8, 2020, 2:49 PM

Vanderbilt University faculty are sharing their expertise on a range of topics related to COVID-19. Subscribe to Vanderbilt’s “Ask an Expert” series on YouTube to get the latest updates.

Having trouble sleeping? With COVID-19 disrupting schedules and ramping up stress levels, it’s only natural that our sleep patterns would be affected.

“Sleep is important all the time, but especially now because of all the added stress we are experiencing,” says physician Beth Malow, professor of neurology and pediatrics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Not sleeping well can interfere with our ability to manage stress effectively. In turn, when our stress and anxiety levels go out of control, it can undermine our sleep routine.

“These days, a person who is normally a good sleeper might find themselves up in the middle of the night with their mind spinning,” she says. “Others may hit a wall at three in the afternoon and end up taking a nap. Either way, their nighttime routine is thrown off.”

Most adults require seven to nine hours of sleep each night. Without it, the body is more susceptible to infection, and mental clarity and mood can be affected negatively.

“If we’re overtired we’re not making good decisions, like touching our face and forgetting to wash our hands, and that makes us more vulnerable to illness,” she says. “We need to be fully present to support our co-workers, friends and family. So sleep matters — especially during extraordinary times like these.”

The good news is that the increased stress/poor sleep cycle can be broken. For those sequestered at home, having a set schedule that includes breaks is imperative.

“Try to create a workspace and a schedule that includes breaks. Otherwise, the hours and days blur into each other,” she says. “Set timers to remind you every hour to get up and move your body and give your eyes rest. Don’t work from your bed or comfy sofa in your pajamas, as you don’t want to associate work with sleep.”

More tips from Malow include:

Expose yourself to bright light and fresh air in the mornings
Open windows and let in the sunlight as much as possible. Morning light helps you wake up, improves mood and makes it easier to go to sleep at night.

Don’t overdo caffeine
While caffeine can boost our energy level, cut yourself off early in the day. Switch from coffee or tea to water or warm herbal tea, which can have a calming effect.

Avoid naps
While caring for family and working from home, it’s natural to be exhausted by midday, and a carefully timed nap can be effective in recharging your energy. But naps that are too long or too late can mess up your sleep routine.

Get moving
Exercise increases the likelihood of getting a good night’s sleep. Vigorous exercise can help promote sleep and also be a stress buster. But be careful about exercising too close to bedtime, as the increased stimulation can interfere with sleep.

Restrict your news intake
You should be informed about current events, but being glued to the minute-by-minute updates in today’s 24-hour news cycle will likely do more harm than good. Set aside a specific period of time dedicated to getting caught up on what’s important for you to know.

Take a social media break
Immersing yourself in the endless streams of posts and comments is an unhealthy space for your brain. Be judicious about the information you consume and focus on positive, uplifting stories. It’s good to connect with people socially, online, but be careful that the conversation doesn’t revolve around coronavirus.

Beware of “wine-o-clock”
A worldwide pandemic seems like the perfect time to indulge in an extra glass of wine (or three)! But even if alcohol provides a relaxing effect at first, it ultimately works against you because it will disrupt sleep patterns.

Reduce screen time an hour before bed.
We are all glued to our devices. But that blue light causes the brain to restrict production of melatonin, which you need to transition from your busy day to bedtime. Turn off those devices and find other ways to wind down, like working a jigsaw puzzle, playing a game of cards or taking a hot bath or shower.

Be kind to yourself
Create a calming, soothing, bedtime routine leading up to bedtime. If you absolutely need to have access to your phone, try adjusting a setting that will dim your phone in the evening and night hours. A cool, dark, and quiet bedroom will help promote sleep. If you are hungry before bed, try a small snack such as a few crackers or nuts.

Beth Malow, M.D., M.S.
Beth Malow, M.D., M.S. (Vanderbilt)

Let go of expectations
If you find yourself awake in the middle of the night, don’t fight it or stress out. Use that middle-of-the-night time to meditate or write down thoughts in a journal. Take some deep breaths and repeat positive affirmations. White noise can be helpful.

Finally, remember that getting through the next few months is going to be a marathon, not a sprint. A little attention to these sleep tips will make a big difference in your ability to fight off infection, keep your mood uplifted, make good decisions, and support your colleagues, friends and family.

Beth Malow is the Burry Chair in Cognitive Childhood Development, Professor of Neurology and Pediatrics, and Director of the Vanderbilt Sleep Division at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

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