April 30, 2020—It’s not surprising that the COVID-19 pandemic is taking a toll on people’s sleep. Between the possibility of infection, the economic effects of being out of work, and the stress of isolating at home, there’s no shortage of worries that can make it hard to get healthy sleep.
One study found symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) reported by 7 percent of residents in Wuhan, the city in China where the virus seems to have started. The anxiety was strongest among people younger than age 35 and people who consumed more than three hours of news per day.
Another study by a Harvard Medical School professor found that people are having increasingly intense dreams during the pandemic. Many of these dreams are about the virus itself, about friends and family growing sick.
“During this pandemic, getting healthy sleep is more important than ever,” said Dr. Anuj Chandra, medical director of the Advanced Center for Sleep Disorders. “Sleep helps keep our immune system strong and just makes it easier for us to feel our best so we can cope with this difficult and stressful situation.”
Dr. Chandra offers these tips for achieving healthy sleep during the pandemic:
- Sleep eight hours every night. Try not to nap because it will make it harder to get enough sleep at night.
- Set a consistent bedtime and wake time. You always sleep better with a consistent schedule. Even if you don’t sleep well one night, resist the temptation to sleep late the next day. It will be easier to get back to your schedule if you are tired the next night.
- Get out of the house (safely) in the morning. Seeing natural sunlight in the morning helps reset your body’s internal clock. Even if you just get out into the backyard it will help. If you go farther from home, observe all the pandemic precautions, like social distancing and wearing a mask if you are around other people.
- Exercise every day. If you can exercise safely outside your home, that’s great. But if you can’t do that, do what you can inside: yoga, a video workout, even walking around inside your house or doing chores. It’s vital to your physical and mental well-being to move.
- Avoid caffeine in the afternoon. Even if you normally have some caffeine fairly late in the day, dial it back during the pandemic. Even if it does not keep you awake, it might make your sleep more shallow so you wake more easily in the night. It might also combine with increased anxiety to make it harder to sleep.
- Avoid electronic screens for two hours before bed. The light from these screens is telling you to wake up, so you don’t want to expose yourself to them at night.
- Don’t work in bed. If you work, read your email, consume news, or even eat in bed you’re training yourself to think of it as a place for waking activities, which can make it harder to sleep when you want to.
- Adjust your eating. If your activity level is lower because you’re stuck at home, you should eat less, too.
- Put yourself on a news diet. Limit your exposure to the news, too, especially in the evening before bed. Whatever you can read at night will still be there in the morning.
- Make sure children follow these guidelines, too. More than ever, they need regular sleep times, limited screen time, and enough physical activity.
“Don’t forget to reassure your children,” said Dr. Chandra. “Even if they put on a brave face during the day to keep you from worrying, talk to them about what they are feeling, and watch for signs of anxiety-like waking up anxious at night.”