With all the uncertainty and upheaval caused by the new coronavirus pandemic, Canadians may have a harder time getting a restful night’s sleep than usual. Yet sleep may be the very thing you need to get you through your day.
What can you do when your thoughts keep you awake at bedtime? What should you do if you’re roused at 3 a.m. and cannot fall back asleep? How do you ensure your children are getting the rest they need? We asked sleep experts for their advice:
So you can’t sleep. That’s okay.
“If [people] normally don’t have trouble sleeping and they’re having trouble now, they’re having a normal response to an abnormal situation,” says Charles Samuels, medical director of Calgary’s Centre for Sleep and Human Performance.
During periods of stress, people typically experience mental rumination, where they have thoughts they cannot control or contain, he says. This is a completely normal psychological response and, especially at this time, people have legitimate worries, he says.
If this describes you, try some of the behavioural interventions described below. However, if you had trouble sleeping before the pandemic, and your sleep problems are now worse than ever, contact your doctor, Dr. Samuels says.
In any case, he advises against using over-the-counter sleep medication.
Quit checking the news
While many health experts have recommended that people limit their news media consumption, Dr. Samuels takes a firmer view.
“Paying attention to the media is just a really bad idea. In any psychological state where there’s a hyperarousal and hypervigilance, continuing to expose yourself to something that you can’t change is of no value.”
Watching the news everyday, and tuning into every news conference is not going to change the situation, Dr. Samuels says. So, he advises, just don’t do it – especially not before going bed.
“People should listen to what they’re told to do to be safe, and do that, and then get on with their lives."
Practice mediation and breathing techniques
Meditative and breathing techniques, such as “box breathing,” can be very useful for coping with stress and for helping you wind down before bed, Dr. Samuels says.
“People undervalue the calming effect of learning to breathe.”
Joanna Mansfield, staff psychiatrist at the women’s mood and anxiety clinic and the cognitive behavioural therapy clinic at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, also recommends box breathing. In an e-mail, she describes how to do it: “Inhale gradually to fill your lungs with air, hold for 1-2 seconds, then exhale the air, hold for 1-2 seconds, and repeat. This can be done 7-10 times in a row, focusing on the breath.”
Get up if you wake up
If you wake up and cannot get back to sleep, get out of bed, go to another room, calm down and return to bed when you’re sleepy, Dr. Samuels says. Never check the time in the middle of the night, especially if it means using your phone or computer, since that can inhibit your ability to fall back to sleep, he says.
Stick to a routine
Keeping a routine is important for everyone, including children and adolescents, says pediatric sleep expert Reut Gruber, an associate professor in the department of psychiatry at McGill University. Your brain needs “zeitgebers” (time givers), or cues from the environment, to recognize day from night, she says.
These zeitgebers include having breakfast and exposing yourself to daylight in the morning, for instance, Dr. Gruber says. At night, the body produces melatonin when it gets dark, which tells your brain it is time to go to sleep.
Since children and teenagers do not need to adhere to their regular school schedules right now, they need not wake up and go to bed at the same time as usual, she says, especially if bedtime is a battle. But whatever new routine they adopt, they should stick to it so that they have consistent wake times. They should start the day with a good amount of light exposure, eat breakfast and engage in activities that help their brains recognize it is daytime, she says. They should also wind down around the same hour each night to maintain consistent bedtimes. A hot shower before bed helps, she suggests. Prebed activities should include staying off electronic devices if possible. If not, use blue-light blockers or blue-light filters so as not to interfere with the body’s secretion of melatonin, she advises.
Sleep helps your immune system, and it allows you to better regulate your mood, Dr. Gruber says. When sleep deprived, you are more likely to feel stressed and irritable – a terrible combination when you are stuck at home in close quarters with others, she says.
So make sleep a priority, she says. If you do not prioritize it, you will likely not make the effort to ensure you get a restful night.
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