Below, sleep expert Dr. Sarah McConville offers tips for getting a good night’s sleep while coping with heightened stress and anxiety due to concerns about COVID-19.
Stress and anxiety are common causes of trouble sleeping. For some, this might mean they have a hard time falling asleep. For others, it might be hard to stay asleep. Some have a hard time with both.
A common theme I hear from patients having trouble sleeping is they can’t “turn their brain off.” When the topics floating around in your brain become more stressful or worrisome, it might be even harder to fall asleep.
I want people to know that if this sounds like them, they aren’t alone! This is a difficult subject for researchers to study because not everyone talks to their health care provider about trouble sleeping. But some estimates show that around 40% to 50% of adults have trouble sleeping at some point.
Can lack of sleep affect my immune system or likelihood of contracting COVID-19?
Sleep certainly plays a role in maintaining a healthy and strong immune system; it can affect how certain cells in our body respond to infections. Healthy sleep means that we are getting enough sleep, and that it’s good quality.
It’s true that the average adult should get at least seven hours a night, and children need more sleep than adults do. But I don’t want people to worry if they have a few nights of bad sleep – this happens to all of us!
The most important things people can do to minimize their chance of catching the novel coronavirus are to practice good hand hygiene, avoid touching their face, and follow the recommended guidelines for physical distancing. Wash your hands and wash them often!
How can I get better sleep?
Sleep is an important part of our health, like eating a nutritious diet or exercising. So we should allow ourselves time to get enough sleep as often as we can. Keeping a consistent schedule can help us sleep more easily. Even on weekends or nonwork days, it’s best to go to bed and wake up at roughly the same time.
Avoiding stimulants in the hours before bed can also help. Ideally, stop drinking caffeine or energy drinks by early afternoon.
With everything we hear about the coronavirus, I think it’s especially important to have time to wind down and relax at the end of the day. People should avoid activities that are stressful or anxiety-provoking in the hours before bed. This might mean turning off the news or taking a break from smartphones or social media. Instead, consider reading, spending time with family, or maybe connecting via telephone with a friend or loved one you can’t visit in person.
What if I get in bed and simply can’t fall asleep?
Believe it or not, one of the most important things to do is to get up and out of bed! When we spend a lot of time in bed while awake, we teach our brains that it’s OK to be in bed and not sleep. We want our brains to learn that when we’re in bed, we can fall asleep – or fall back asleep – pretty easily.
If you can’t sleep, it’s best to be somewhere else comfortable, like in a chair or sofa in your living room or somewhere else quiet, doing something relaxing like reading or working on a jigsaw puzzle. When your eyelids feel heavy and droopy and the sleepiness kicks in, that’s the time to get back in bed and try to fall asleep.
Can medicine or supplements help sleep?
The best thing people can do is establish a consistent sleep schedule. Going to bed and waking up at roughly the same time each day can help the body sleep more easily.
Having a pre-sleep routine that allows you to wind down is also a good idea. I generally recommend making these types of schedule and lifestyle changes first.
What if you never get enough sleep?
I would encourage that person to look at their schedule and see how they might add time for sleep. This could mean cutting out some screen time before bed or getting a few tasks done at night so you can sleep a little later in the morning.
I realize this can feel easier said than done. If this is an ongoing problem, it would be worth discussing it with your primary care provider to see if health-related factors might be affecting your sleep. They may recommend that you see a sleep medicine specialist.
Sarah McConville, M.D.
Department of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine, Department of Neurology
Oregon Health & Science University