Why it’s important to get a good night’s sleep during the coronavirus outbreak
April 16, 2020
Anxieties related to loss of control and uncertainty are understandable as we shelter in place during the COVID-19 pandemic. While a natural fear response is par for the course, too much anxiety can be problematic. Instead of spending time and energy worrying, why not channel that energy into what you can control — self-care. Focusing on sleep is a natural fit for working on self-care, as we know that getting enough sleep can benefit your immune system.
Can sleep help my immune system fight the coronavirus?
Ample sleep supports the immune system, which reduces the risk of infection and can improve outcomes for people fighting a virus. On the other hand, sleep deprivation weakens the body’s defense system and makes people more vulnerable to contracting a virus.
Can sleep help improve my mood and productivity during the COVID-19 pandemic?
It's not easy to function at our best without easy access to our usual coping skills (e.g., social support, exercise, etc.) while sheltering in place. Adequate sleep can maximize your potential for having better days under these circumstances. Optimal sleep helps regulate mood, improve brain function, and increase energy and overall productivity during the day.
Why are so many people having trouble sleeping while sheltering in place?
Elevated stress and an overload of information can keep the mind racing and elevate the body’s arousal system response, triggering insomnia.
People are spending every waking moment getting one last look at their screens (news updates, COVID-19 education, social connections). The blue light from these screens tells the brain to stop producing the sleep hormone melatonin, which can lead to trouble falling asleep.
Also, loss of daytime structure can upset nighttime sleep schedules. Inconsistent bedtimes and wake times can shift the pressure, or urge, to sleep, making ability to fall asleep less predictable.
Finally, depressed mood, more downtime and low energy can increase long napping, making it harder to fall asleep at night.
What can help me sleep better during the coronavirus outbreak?
Sleep is crucial at this time. Here’s how changing habits can help improve your sleep:
Create a sleep schedule. Figure out your sleep need (experiment with different amounts), 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, so getting to bed "on time” is more realistic right now — take advantage of that.
Limit screen time at night. Turn off your devices one hour before bedtime. Leave your cell phone charging in the kitchen so you are not tempted to look at COVID-19 updates during the night.
Find time for you. Take the hour before bedtime as “me time” with no electronic engagement. Minimize conversations and calls during that hour. That's not easy, especially if you have young children at home, but it’s important. We all need at least one hour alone per day. Take a hot bath/shower, play soothing music, try a meditation app and read a book or magazine.
Minimize naps. Daytime sleep should be less than 30 minutes and before 2 p.m. If you have any trouble falling asleep, avoid napping.
Try breathing exercises. Use ten slow deep breaths to fall asleep and return to sleep. It should be a slow inhale through your nose for 3 to 4 seconds and a slow exhale through your mouth for 3 to 4 seconds.
Enhance your sleep environment. Make sure your bedroom environment is conducive to sleep. Keep the room temperature cool, try an eye mask or blackout shades, and use a white noise machine to block extraneous noise from the street or the hallway.
Gain control over stress. Many folks have less access to their usual coping strategies such as time with friends and going to the gym. Try new activities and hobbies — painting, writing, photography, indoor exercise videos, etc. Find ways to stay connected with friends and family through technology. Consider therapy if the stress feels unmanageable.
Structure your daytime schedule. Commit to daily activities (e.g., exercise, meals, socializing) at certain times to build structure to your days. This will support a regular bedtime and wake time. Set cell phone reminders to anchor your schedule, and as a reminder to turn off screens an hour before bedtime.
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, just do your best to get to bed on time and follow these tips if there are problems. Remember to always come back to “controlling the controllables.” You can’t control the outcome of your efforts, only the efforts themselves.
Lisa Medalie, PsyD, DBSM
Lisa Medalie, PsyD, DBSM, is a behavioral sleep medicine specialist at the University of Chicago Medicine. She specializes in the treatment of chronic insomnia in adults and children and uses evidence-based behavioral strategies in that effort.See Dr. Lisa Medalie's physician profile
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