The last time I interviewed the sleep doctor Dr Guy Meadows he reeled off some of the things that can disrupt sleep: a change in your work or daily routine, money worries, marital spats, working from home where your work and downtime merge into one, uncertainty, scrolling through bad news on your phone.
“So is it any wonder #cantsleep has been trending on Twitter for the last week?” says Dr Meadows, founder of The Sleep School. “What we’re seeing as we enter the third week of lockdown is how much the coronavirus is affecting mental health and sleep.”
Sleep and mental health are intimately connected in a number of ways, says Meadows. “The neurochemicals responsible for a good night’s sleep help manage our mood, so sleep is the canary down the mine when it comes to mental health. However, it has now become more important than ever to strengthen our immune system, and one of the best ways to do this is to get a good night’s sleep.”
Our immune system, says Meadows, is designed to fight off illnesses and viruses. “Research has shown that getting 7-8 hours of sleep each night helps enhance the function of T cells, a type of white blood cell that attacks and kills viruses. Furthermore, sleep plays a role in producing cytokine, a protein required for our immune systems to quickly communicate with our cells to ensure our body’s timely response to harmful invaders.”
But here’s the dilemma: while we need sleep more than ever to bulletproof our immune systems in the face of coronavirus, the chaos it has caused has meant that for many of us, sleep is increasingly hard to come by.
“There are endless reasons why, as a nation, we’re not sleeping very well right now,” says Meadows. “First of all, there’s the huge change in routine. We’re going to bed later because we don’t have to wake up early to catch a train. Our days are more stressful because everybody is trying to adapt to working from home. On top of this, many workers are having to home school young children alongside their work.
“Some of us are drinking more than usual and then there’s the lack of exercise; we may have started off with good intentions to do a YouTube workout every morning, but as the weeks go and stress increases, this can drop off. And there’s a lack of downtime; we’re not able to read a book on our commute or go for lunch with a friend.”
Then there’s the fact that a family in lockdown doesn’t space and time away from each other. “Whether it’s bored teenagers, young children, or bickering couples going to bed on a row, there’s the potential for a lot of tension in the house throughout the day, which affects sleep. On the other end of things, there are older people who may be cut off from wider family members and lonely.
“Add to that the clocks went forward by an hour last month, which is also detrimental to sleep.”
And then, of course, there’s the biggest sleep thief of all: “We’re all so worried about the virus; whether we’re going to get it, or that somebody we love will. We’re worried about our jobs. There are so many stresses swirling around causing us to have fitful sleep, anxious dreams and insomnia.”
So how can you sleep more soundly?
Routine is everything
Sleep is regulated by our internal body clock, called the circadian rhythm. “Many of us have terrible routines at the moment: waking up late, working from the moment we wake up and look at our phones, staying up late to finish the work we didn’t have time to do in the day because we were looking after our children or trying to buy food.
“Now we’re going into week three, it’s vital to have a routine: go to bed at the same time each night, wake up at the same time and have your meals at the same time. It sounds simple, but it will reset your body clock and ensure better sleep.”
With that in mind, have a ‘fake commute’
Once the bane of our lives, many of us may be missing our daily commute. Perhaps it involved exercise if you walked or cycled to work, perhaps it gave you 40 minutes of peace to read your book with a flat white. “Either way, a commute plays an important part in our routine, and separates our working day from our leisure time,” says Meadows.
To avoid this, he suggests having a ‘fake commute’. “Every morning, before you start the day, take a ten minute walk around the block, staying safely away from others. In the evening, when you shut down your laptop, do the same to transition your mind from work to home time. The fresh air and exercise will help you sleep better, as will the sunlight on your skin which is important for good sleep.”
Accept your worries
“Worry keeps people awake,” says Meadows. “The reason for this is because at the end of a busy day, when our head hits the pillow, the brain catches up and reflects on worries. The area of the brain responsible for this is the default mode network, or the DMN. And it’s designed to focus on the negatives, which is probably an evolutionary throwback to keep us safe. So when we get into bed our brain churns out thoughts like, ‘Where did I slip up today? What could go wrong tomorrow?’
“During studies, MRI scans have shown that our brains literally light up with worries at night, with our DMN springing into action, which leads to rumination. So at the clinic, we teach acceptance therapy. If you struggle to fall asleep, or you wake at 2am, or 5am and can’t get back to sleep, simply lie in bed and accept your worry.
“To do this, identify your stressful thought and label it. Are you worried about your job? Are you scared someone you love will get coronavirus? Label the fear and the emotion and they will lessen slightly.
“When you notice these thoughts arriving, accept them, and let them pass. Lie mindfully and enjoy the benefits of being in a big, warm, comfortable bed. Notice your worries, and let them pass and from there sleep can emerge. And if it doesn’t? Just accept it and rest, noticing your thoughts and accepting them.”
Don’t forget the basics
Despite the huge disruptions taking place, Meadows says sticking to the basics of good sleep important. “As well as establishing a good routine, remember to darken down two hours before bed, switching off all screens.
“No caffeine after lunch, and drink in moderation. One tip is this: ‘Normal rules apply’. In other words, just because you’re in lockdown doesn’t mean you should have a glass of wine at 3pm. When faced with stress it’s easy to start drinking too much caffeine, alcohol, eating more than usual or smoking. But these things will disturb your sleep and also lower your immunity.”
Stay informed – but only to a point
“It’s important we stay informed about the coronavirus,” says Meadows. “However, endlessly scrolling through bad news stories and social media will stress you out, and lead to poor sleep.
“In terms of social media, I’ve also noticed a narrative emerging that is saying, ‘Make the most of this time!’ Yet many of us are working harder than ever. Many are home schooling. Seeing endless posts about baking, decorating, or learning new languages can feel stressful if you’re struggling to hold it all together. So stay informed, but know when to switch off.”
The Sleep Clinic has launched a free, seven-night guided meditation series, which you can access here.
Has your sleeping pattern been affected by the lockdown? Let us know in the comments section below.