You might have recently had to start staying at home during the covid-19 pandemic. You might be shielding due to your age or health condition, or social-distancing, working from home. Maybe you can’t work at the moment, or you are retired or not in work – here are some ideas to help protect or improve your sleep pattern and your wellbeing during this time. Try these things for a few weeks and you should start to see improvement.
1) Stick to regular times for sleep, activity and meals
Even if these aren’t exactly the same hours you usually keep when you have your normal going-out commitments, establish regularly timed routines, and choose hours that enable you to be awake for a good amount of daylight. Establish some contrast between ‘day’ and ‘night’, through your routines; for example, do you really feel equally daytime-ish in your pyjamas as when you are dressed? If you usually use an alarm clock, don’t stop altogether, even if you decide to change the time slightly. The body likes routine because of our circadian rhythm (body clock).
This video explains more, including the science behind why humans benefit from regular rhythms
2) Keep the ‘bed-space’ just for sleep
If you have some work or productive tasks you need to do from home now, try to do these in another room than your bedroom if you can. If you have to do work or productive tasks in your bedroom, try to create a separate area, facing a different way than you are facing when you are in bed, so the view is different and it feels like a different space. Some people have a make-shift office which they cover up with a throw at the end of their work day. Some people put their work things away. Make the space look and feel different in its ‘work’ and ‘rest’ modes. This will help you to still subconsciously associate your bed with sleep when it comes to bed time.
3.a) Get daytime light
Sit by a window at breakfast if you can. Morning light is important, and daytime light also helps with sleep and mood. If you have a garden or balcony, use it. If you are in a situation where you can go for a morning walk whilst social distancing (keeping at least 2m apart), then take advantage of this. Morning light is especially important if you are naturally a ‘night owl’.
& 3.b) Reduce your evening light exposure
You are probably getting less daytime light than usual by not going out, so lower the lights as much as you can in the evening. Don’t watch TV too late, or use your phone too late. Set a screen dimmer or ‘blue-light filter’ on your smart-phone. With less daytime light, you are more sensitive to evening light, which can delay your sleep timing.
This video explains more about timing of light and your body clock
4) Limit social media and news time
Many smartphones have an option to set time limits for different apps. Set yourself limits on checking news and media, and set a time in the evening after which you will have no news or social media, and focus on something else of your choice.
5) Do productive activities
Maybe you are working from home. Maybe you are not able to work from home. Or maybe you don’t usually work. Whatever your situation we all benefit from a balance of different activities in our day. Productive activities give us a sense of purpose; sometimes they help others, and sometimes they just need doing.
Think about what else you can still do whilst staying at home. Can you learn a new skill, or study a subject that will help you later? (Or a subject you find interesting? Or both?). There are many free online courses available (for example here). Some people have tackled some tidying up or organising that they been leaving for ages, or have worked on improving their home in some way. There might even be some volunteering you could do (in or out of the home).
Set yourself some tasks; once you have made progress you will probably feel satisfied and pleased to have achieved something. Being mentally active and productive may help you feel more sleepy at night, can give you something to get up for, and may help you feel like you deserve to relax in the evening.
6) Physical activity
Exercise improves sleep. Plan to do some physical activity every day. What this is this depends how active you usually are. Find something at your level that you can do in your home and plan a regular time to do it so it becomes routine. Ideas for activities to do from home include: yoga (or chair yoga), aerobics, stairs or step-ups (if you have a step), dancing, ‘Wii fit’ or other physical computer games if you have them, weights (you can use household objects), skipping, or active housework such as mopping and hoovering.
7) Avoid napping, lying in, or excessive sleep
Daytime napping can be useful for some people, such as people with certain health conditions or some older people, but if you don’t usually nap, don’t start now. It can be tempting to nap if tiredness creeps up on you n the daytime, but napping reduces the night-time drive to sleep (called “sleep pressure”). So if you don’t nap, you will find it easier to get to sleep at night. If you are going to nap, many experts advise to keep it to less than 30 minutes so that you don’t go into deep sleep. This way you also wont feel disorientated when you wake up. Sleeping for much longer than needed can cause low mood and energy, so try to resist this. Most adults need between 7 and 9hrs sleep.
This video explains how napping and lying in reduces ‘sleep pressure’
8) Reduce caffeine, alcohol and other sleep interferers
People’s sensitivity to caffeine varies, but it is always a stimulant. Reduce caffeine or don’t have it so late in the day. The same goes for alcohol, which gives you more interrupted sleep even if it might seem to make you fall asleep more quickly.
Even if caffeine or alcohol don’t usually seem to affect your sleep, when you have changes to your routine, and perhaps additional stress, then caffeine can be just be one extra factor pushing your body towards staying ‘awake’. So if you are having difficulty try reducing it.
This video explains how “sleep interferers” push the sleep switch toward ‘awake’.
9) Take time to relax and wind down
This is a stressful time for many of us. There are many uncertainties but you can’t solve everything right now, so make sure you allow yourself to put down your tasks and your worries. You can come back to them later if you want to. Do something relaxing to wind down. Some people have been spending more time on craft projects, drawing, baking, or other creative activities. Some people benefit from practicing meditation or mindfulness. Sophie swears by crochet in the evening. Reading, audio-books, or podcasts can be relaxing (as long as you don’t choose scary or exciting content). Cary Brown recommends looking at some of these meditations for sleep. Choose what you enjoy and find relaxing, and decide what time your evening wind down should start, allowing an hour or so to wind down.
10) Don’t focus effort on trying to sleep
Be kind to your sleep, and give it what it needs by following the advice above, but don’t try to force it. If you find you are lying in bed getting frustrated trying to force yourself to sleep, get up for a bit and do something mundane in another room. Remember you will actually be fine even if you get hardly any sleep tonight so don’t stress out over it. Focus on something else for a bit and then go back to bed when you feel sleepy.
This video explains more about why and how to avoid “sleep effort”
11) Connect socially
Feeling socially connected will help with your overall wellbeing and your sleep. Don’t wait until things go back to normal to catch up with people. It might be a while and we need each other now. Establish new social routines, making regular contact with your friends and family using phone or video calling. If your friends aren’t tech-literate, help them (remotely). If it’s the other way around, ask for help! Consider getting back in touch with people you haven’t spoken to for a while.
Popular apps for social video calling include: Skype, Meet, Zoom, Facebook Messenger, Google Hangouts, Houseparty, WhatsApp, Viber, FaceTime (Apple).
Also if you usually enjoy playing board games or videogames in person, consider playing them online with friends. There are various sites and services to do this. Some include voice chat, or you can have a phone call or group video call alongside your game.
People are coming up with creative ways to stay in touch, like virtual classes, and virtual pub-quizes. See what is out there, or set something up. Someone has to make the first move though. Many of your friends are probably feeling just as isolated as you, so they might appreciate it if you suggest doing something.
12) Ask for help if you need it
It’s common to have short term insomnia for a few days or a couple of weeks when something stressful happens or when you are adapting to change, but if its going on longer, it is OK to ask for help. Your healthcare professional might be able to refer you for online or phone Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for insomnia, or for advice or treatment for Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorder. Research shows that these therapies can work. Improving sleep problems can help to improve improve and protect your overall health in future, so its worth investing in.
About the author:
This content was brought to you by Sophie Faulkner – a mental health occupational therapist specialising in sleep and circadian rhythm. Sophie is completing a PhD developing and testing a sleep intervention for people with schizophrenia spectrum diagnoses, the project is currently paused due to the covid-19 pandemic.
Thanks for input from: sleep OTs Cary Brown and Jean Koketsu.
Members of the public (anonymous), and people with lived experience of mental illness (anonymous) who gave feedback on drafts.
Thanks go to Kory Stout, Peter Leigh & Rachel Heyes who kindly helped with video editing.