Tips to Improve Your Sleep

Updated: Apr 16

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unparalleled change to our lives. Dealing with the resulting ongoing change and uncertainty is overwhelming for many people.

Before the pandemic, researchers found that approximately 40% of adults ages 18 and older reported experiencing at least one symptom of insomnia three (3) times a week.[1] The coronavirus pandemic has created a whole new set of stressors, bringing new challenges for people who previously never had an issue with their sleep.

COVID-19’s impact on our sleep:

The pandemic doesn’t impact everyone the same way. But, for those who have been physically affected by having the virus, those who are now working from home and living in isolation, and those working on the front-lines such as healthcare workers, first responders, and essential service workers, the impact is significant and presents a number of barriers to people getting the amount and quality of sleep they need.

Daily life upheaval—Adjusting to new schedules, new work environments (or no longer having a job), social distancing, school closures, and no longer being able to get outside to engage in our regular daily routines or exercise, are just a few examples of everyday life upheaval during COVID-19. For some, not being able to get outside, means they are getting less daylight and are missing the necessary light to help their body receive the cues for wakefulness and sleep.

Stress, worry and anxiety—The stress and worry about COVID-19 and how to keep ourselves and those whom we care about healthy is tremendous and ever-present. Many people are worried about the health and safety of elderly relatives or immunocompromised family members or friends. Job loss, or job uncertainty, is fueling worries about the economy and financial security and leaving many to worry about how they will make ends meet. Worrying thoughts and anxiety about our future can lead to our minds racing and interfere with finding the calm and relaxation necessary to fall or stay asleep.

Isolation, grief and loss—The sense of isolation caused by sheltering in place, and reduced contact with extended family, friends or work colleagues, along with the grief associated with the loss of normalcy or the deaths of loved ones or colleagues, can have a significant impact on sleep. These major life changes can lead to feelings of depression and anxiety make it harder to put the mind at ease and rest.

Too much screen time, media overload—During this time of stay-at-home orders, Zoom meetings, and FaceTime or Skype dates or social get-together have added to the amount of screen time people are getting. Time spent on social media channels or online getting news information means that people are also more subjected to encountering upsetting or misleading information about the pandemic, it’s causes and impact, creating confusion, stress, and worries. In addition to upsetting content, exposure to the blue light from computers and cell phones screen in the nighttime or pre-bed hours tricks our brains into thinking its daytime, thus interfering with our ability to sleep.

Why sleep is important:

When our sleep is good, we fall asleep quickly (usually within 15-20 minutes), enjoy 7 – 9 hours of continuous sleep in 24 hours, and wake up feeling refreshed. Research shows that:

Sleep is vital to our physical health and well-being. For our physical health, sleep boosts immunity, restores energy, aids in tissue growth and repair, and helps us to physically recover from illness and injuries. Chronic poor sleep can increase the risk of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.

Sleep enhances mood and improves mental health. Psychologically, sleep helps to balance our mood, combats stress, depression and anxiety, and helps us get along with others. Regularly not getting good sleep can lead to ongoing worries about being able to sleep.

Sleep helps brain functioning. Getting enough, quality sleep aids in restoring memory, focus and concentration. It also helps to reduce errors, impaired judgement and reaction time that can lead to injuries and accidents. Sleep helps to improve our ability to solve problems and be creative.

The relationship between stress, anxiety and sleep problem:

Under stress, the body releases hormones--adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine--that boost energy and alertness, raise heart rate and blood pressure – priming the body for fight or flight. These hormones keep us in a hyperaroused, awake state that interferes with our ability to feel mentally and physically calm and relaxed. As a result, stress can make it difficult to sleep.

When sleep problems such as difficulty falling asleep, waking up on and off during the night, waking up too early and not returning to sleep, or waking up feeling tired and not refreshed, last for longer than one month, they become an indicator of insomnia. Other symptoms of insomnia include not feeling well; feeling tired during the day; feeling irritable, depressed or anxious; having difficulties paying attention or maintaining focus; increased errors and accidents, and having ongoing worries about sleep.

Insomnia may be due to a range of factors, including stress and pain. Often negative thoughts and certain behaviours play a part in keeping insomnia going.

Tips to improve your sleep during the pandemic:

While there is little debate that the coronavirus pandemic is impacting people’s sleep, your behaviours during the day, before and while in bed, can make a real difference in the quality of your sleep.

Look after your physical well-being.

Maintaining a healthy diet is essential, but also pay attention to when you are eating. Heavy meals before bed interfere with sleep. Also, being too hungry can be distracting and keep you up. If you need to eat before bed, have a light snack or a warm glass of milk.

Regular exercise is an excellent stress reliever, and research shows that exercise helps you fall asleep more quickly and can help you have a more restful sleep. But, try to avoid any strenuous exercise in the 2-4 hours before bedtime. Vigorous aerobic exercise triggers endorphins that stimulate brain activity and can keep some people awake.

Avoid stimulants such as caffeinated drinks, chocolate, nicotine, and some medications for 4-6 hours before bed. These substances can interfere with your ability to fall asleep.

Some believe that alcohol can help you relax. However, it can interfere with your ability to stay asleep in the latter part of the night. Avoid alcohol for 4-6 hours before bed.

Make your bedroom ready for sleeping.

External factors such as room temperature, noise, and how comfortable we are, can have a direct impact on sleep. To support a good night's sleep, keep your sleep space cool (not too hot or cold), dark and quiet. If you need, utilize a sound diffuser to minimize noise, or a sleep mask or blackout drapes to block out light. Make sure your mattress and bedding are comfortable.

Get sunlight (or full-spectrum light).

Try to get outside during the day. But if you aren’t able to get outside, sit on the porch or balcony, or keep the drapes and blinds open during the day. The natural light can have a positive effect on your circadian rhythm—your internal sleep clock controlled by the hypothalamus. This sleep clock tells us when it’s time to be awake and when it’s time to be asleep—and we need light to set it.

Watch your screen time before bed.

Too much blue light from electronic devices such as computers, cell phones, tablets and computers can stimulate our brains to think that it’s daytime and time to be alert and awake. Also, if you are watching, playing or reading content that is stimulating or upsetting, it can interfere with your ability to wind-down and relax.

Focus on relaxation.

To relax the mind and body before bed, consider taking a warm bath, listening to quiet music, practice meditation or mindfulness exercises such as calm breathing or progressive relaxation.

Get on a sleep schedule

Our bodies react better when on a regular sleep schedule throughout the week and weekend. Keeping a regular sleep schedule will help train your body to know when its time for sleep and when its time to be awake. Try these guidelines:

  1. Get out of bed the same time every day (7 days a week) no matter how poorly you sleep. It's best not to vary your wake up times by more than 30 minutes. If you think this might be a challenge, try setting your alarm to maintain the same wake-up time every day, avoid hitting the snooze button, or plan an enjoyable activity for the first thing to motivate you to get out of bed.

  2. Plan a routine of activities that help remind your body that its time to wind down and get ready to sleep. Consider adding a warm shower or bath, having a hot caffeine-free tea, or listening to quiet music to your daily wind-down routine.

  3. Stick to a consistent lights-out time for going to bed, even when you think you want to catch up on your sleep. Going to bed “early” can reduce your prior wakefulness and upset your sleep system making it more difficult to sleep. The longer you go without sleep, the higher the likelihood you will be able to fall asleep.

  4. Limit any naps to less than 45 minutes and no later than 3:00 PM. Naps longer than 45 minutes often consist of deep sleep and can make it more difficult to sleep later than night. Research shows that naps as short at 10 minutes can boost mood and alertness.

Focus on stimulus control.

Research shows that the more we associate our bed with being awake and stimulating activities, the greater the likelihood that it will be difficult to fall asleep. Stimulus control techniques are designed to strengthen your brain's association between the bed and sleep by making the bed a stronger cue for sleep. Follow these steps to reinforce your bed as a cue for sleep:

  1. Use your bedroom for sleep and sexual activity only. Don’t use your bedroom for studying, working, watching TV, or talking on the phone.

  2. Limit your awake time in bed to less than one-half hour both before lights out at night and your final awakening in the morning.

  3. Make sure you feel drowsy when you turn the lights off to go to sleep—rely on cues such as your eyes closing or head nodding to tell you when you should turn out the lights.

  4. Use the “½ hour- ½ hour” rule. If you don’t fall asleep within 30 minutes (½ hour), get out of bed, go to another room and read or watch TV for 30 minutes or until you feel drowsy, then attempt to go back to sleep.

Reflect on the positives.

It might not seem relevant to your sleep, but a positive, hopeful outlook can boost resilience and reduce stress. Take time to reflect on the positives and things you are grateful for. Focus on what you can accomplish and control, and practice letting go of those issues or concerns that you can’t control. Reflect on times when you overcame adversity to stay in touch with your strengths and abilities.

Get support if you need it.

If you are struggling to cope with the stress of the pandemic or would like support for your sleep problems, your Employee and Family Assistance Program is here to help. Professional counsellors are available by phone 24-hours a day, 7-days a week. Contact EFAP, we're here to help.

[1] Morin, Charles M. Ph.D., Insomnia: Prevalence, Burden, and Consequences. Canadian Sleep Society, Insomnia Rounds, Vol 1, Issue 1, 2012. #COVID #Pandemic #Sleep

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