Maintaining healthy sleep during COVID-19

Good quality sleep is important for both our physical and emotional health. However, COVID-19 is impacting our ability to obtain quality sleep in a number of ways. Brendan Street, Head of Emotional Wellbeing, provides his top tips for improving your sleep quality.

Sleep is sometimes referred to as the 'Swiss Army Knife of health' as it serves so many important functions. Getting a good night’s sleep can help to maintain both our physical and mental health as well as reducing our risk of accidents and injuries. 

Sleep also impacts directly on our immune systems. Sleep deprivation increases the risk of inflammation in the body, which in turn increases our susceptibility to viruses and other diseases.

Getting enough quality sleep is therefore more important now than ever in order to maintain good physical health and emotional wellbeing during exceptionally difficult times.

Stress and sleep

Stress and worry are known to have a very detrimental impact on sleep, causing a range of sleep problems, or making existing sleep difficulties worse.

For many people, worry can start when their heads hit the pillow and they try to process the events of the day or manage the worries they have about the future. Watching the news or reading updates about COVID-19 in the evening can generate new worries and fears that can interfere with our ability to fall asleep.

This can be a two-way street. Lack of sleep can also impact on anxiety and unhelpful patterns can develop where anxiety disrupts normal sleep, and this lack of sleep in turn increases anxiety.

Dealing with uncertainty

Only one thing seems certain at present: there will be more uncertainty to come and, with it, increasing levels of worry and anxiety. Because we don’t know what to expect we start to imagine what might happen and try to be as prepared as possible.

Our bodies respond to this uncertainty by flooding us with chemicals to helps us deal with the threat, activating a powerful fight or flight stress response.

Normally these hormones subside once a threat has passed and our bodies return to balance. However, in periods of prolonged stress, the body remains in an ever-ready fight mode, which impacts sleep.

Keep moving

Many people have had their regular exercise routine disrupted due to the closure of gyms and social distancing measures. According to the Sleep Foundation, regular exercisers fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly than those who don’t exercise. In fact, even a single moderate-intensity workout, can improve sleep among people with chronic insomnia.

Research suggests that exercise triggers an increase in body temperature, and the post-exercise drop in temperature may promote falling asleep.

Exercise also reduces insomnia by decreasing our physical arousal levels, anxiety and depressive symptoms. Exercise is also thought to help the body maintain a healthy circadian rhythm or body clock.

Healthy routine and sleep environment

With many people working from home normal routines and environment have been disrupted.

Home is normally associated with rest, relaxation and recharge. With many people now working at home, the boundaries between work space and home space can become blurred and restful sleep environments can become contaminated with the stress of working or home schooling. Increased screen time can also disrupt the body’s natural body clock.

In cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), when working with sleep difficulties the main interventions used are ‘sleep hygiene’ and ‘stimulus control’. Sleep hygiene is about forming good sleep habits and stimulus control works to strengthen the connection between the bed and sleep behaviour.

Having a healthy bedtime routine and sleep environment can help promote good quality sleep.

Top tips for promoting positive sleep during COVID-19

  • Make time to unwind
    Spend some time relaxing and watching, listening or reading about things that have nothing to do with COVID-19. This is especially important in the hour or so before going to sleep, so that you can go to sleep with a relaxed mind.
  • Assign worry time
    Set aside specific worry periods during which you let yourself consider the worries of the day. Keep this period away from bedtime. Tell yourself ‘I’ll worry about this later’ and then let yourself worry about it for half an hour in the evening. If there’s something you can do about your worry, make a plan, if there's not, let it go.
  • Put pen to paper
    Putting your emotions into words can also help you get through stressful events. This can help you organise your thoughts and better cope with your emotions.
  • Limit your media exposure
    Limit your updates to once or twice a day and to one or two sources. Reading every news report and update on every news or social media site can feed anxious cycles. Be sensible about what you learn about COVID-19. Check official web sites and don’t not pay too much attention to gossip and scaremongering.
  • Remember to breathe
    When we experience stress, our breathing becomes more rapid. When you feel yourself getting worked up, pay attention to the length of your exhales and inhales. Try to breathe less than 12 breaths a minute. Slower respirations decrease the body’s stress response.
  • Try relaxation techniques
    Meditation and mindfulness can help you unwind before bedtime.
  • Your bed is predominantly for sleep
    Keep a strong association between your bed and sleeping. If you go to bed and find that you cannot get to sleep, or if you wake up during the night, get up and do something relaxing in dim light that is quiet and away from the bedroom. Go back to bed when you feel ready to fall asleep.
  • Create a healthy sleep environment
    Separate your work and home space as much as possible. Remove any screens from your bedroom and reduce screen time before bed. Blue light has a sleep disrupting effect, which interferes with your internal body clock impacting on sleep pattern. Check our guide to creating a healthy sleep environment for more information.
  • Improve your bedtime routine
    This will mean you can switch off and sleep easier. Avoid nicotine, caffeine and alcohol, as these can make anxiety worse.
  • Exercise regularly
    If you can’t get out to the gym or your usual activity, be creative. There are many things you can do to keep exercising even if you’re at home more than usual or self-isolating. Look online for inspiration and ideas on how to use your home as a safe and effective workout space. Why not try one of our home workouts?
  • Manage fatigue
    Don’t worry too much if you did not get much sleep, or it was poor quality – it is not the end of the world. You will get through the next day alright and if you are quite tired, it's likely you will sleep better the next night. Keeping a regular routine will also help.
  • Keep a regular sleep-wake routine
    As much as possible we should keep a normal sleep routine. Going to bed at the same time each night, and getting up at the same time each morning is important for getting a good night of sleep.

If you need more guidance on looking after your emotional wellbeing during these uncertain times, find out more here.

Last updated Tuesday 9 June 2020

First published on Monday 20 April 2020