How to Sleep in the Midst of a Global Pandemic

published Mar 22, 2020
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This past week, as everything around us is shutting down, my mind has been doing the opposite. When I crawl into bed, my anxious thoughts keep playing on loop, louder than the occasional sirens, garbage trucks, or noisy reveler outside the window that might have kept me awake a few weeks ago.

It feels like the whole world has changed in the past week, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. And while all of our daily habits and rhythms have been disrupted, one I didn’t expect to take a hit was sleep. Turns out, experts say, there’s a reason it feels so elusive right now.

“It’s one of the basic preservation instincts,” says Kelly Glazer Baron, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist with training in behavioral sleep medicine and an associate professor in the Division of Public Health at the University of Utah. “When you’re under threat, you don’t sleep well.” Evolutionarily, our bodies are conditioned not to sleep when we perceive a threat (imagine if you stopped for a quick catnap while a bear was chasing you!).

But this modern-day threat isn’t like the metaphorical bear. “There’s nothing we can do. We’re not running from anything,” says Michael Grandner, Ph.D., director of the Sleep and Health Research Program at the University of Arizona. “We’re in this dangerous situation of high stress, but we are also in this weird situation where our power to control the situation lies more in inaction than action. That creates this sort of free-floating anxiety where we don’t know what to do with ourselves.”

Anxiety and sleep are intertwined into a vicious cycle where one makes the other worse. Research shows that anxiety interferes with sleep. But sleep deprivation, in turn, can make anxiety worse. “People who don’t sleep well are more likely to become depressed or anxious if they weren’t before. If they have a recurrent depression or anxiety disorder it will not only make it worse, it will make it more likely to come back if it’s in remission,” Grandner says. “When we have something like [the coronavirus pandemic], which creates a background of stress and then you add to that the disruption of the cycle, there you get this perfect storm that could lead to bad sleep.”

Schedule changes can also lead to problems sleeping. Whether you’re suddenly working from home, unable to work, or working overtime in an essential service, everything about this time is disruptive. “Sleep is very rhythmic,” Grandner says. “The body loves predictability.”

“Sleep gets disrupted with stress, but if you sleep better, you can handle stress better physically and emotionally,” Baron says. “It’s one of the most important things you can have in your corner.” What’s more, research suggests a link between sleep and immunity. “There’s been data out there for years showing that people who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to get colds,” Grandner says. While of course “sleep isn’t going to cure all disease,” he explains, it can help to set your body up for success—similar to how regular exercise and a healthy diet would.

Luckily, the experts say there’s a lot you can do during the day to set yourself up for success at night:

Try to establish and maintain a consistent schedule

“The first thing I would say is to try and establish as regular of a schedule as possible,” Grandner says. “In a time of unbalance, create some balance even if you have to do it superficially.” He recommends getting up at the same time every day, even if you don’t have to, and trying to get some sunlight in the morning. Go outside if it’s possible, and if not, open up a window or go out on a balcony. Maintaining your morning rituals, like showering, changing, and brushing your teeth, can promote that sense of rhythm.

Be as active as you’re able to

It’s also helpful to stay as active as you can, says Baron. Most social distancing advice says it’s fine to go outside for a walk, as long as you stay six feet from other people. In fact, the areas that have enacted “shelter in place” policies still allow for outdoor exercise, whether it’s walking or running. Baron says that schools are often recommending to aim for an hour a day for kids, and suggests adults take the same advice. “Normally at work, I would commute in, take a lunchtime walk, play with the kids in the evening,” she says. “Try to recreate that. You don’t want to change your pattern so much.”

Institute a news and social media stop time

When it comes to your nighttime routine, both Baron and Grandner suggest choosing a time to stop checking the news and social media (I started a Twitter and news moratorium after 9 p.m., and can vouch that it really works). “Don’t bathe in the constant stress of the world,” Grandner says. “It will be there in the morning and there’s nothing you can do about it right now.”

And try replacing the news binge with a book

“It’s something a lot of people do at night anyway, but there’s some indications that reading is a great activity at night,” Grandner says. Pick something distracting, but not something so engrossing that you can’t put it down. When your eyelids start dropping or you can’t physically hold the book up, that’s your signal that it’s time to go to bed. Reading, Grandner says, moves at your pace, compared to a TV show or a movie that goes at its own pace (even if you’re exhausted you might be tempted to watch to the end to see what happens).

But don’t stress out if you do all of that and you still can’t sleep

If, despite unplugging and reading, you find yourself staring at the ceiling contemplating if we’ll manage to flatten the curve, the best thing you can do is to stop trying to sleep. Imagine a dentist’s waiting room, Grandner says: If you hate going to the dentist, then you’re already anxious when you’re sitting in the waiting room. “Your mind knows what’s coming,” he says. “You don’t want that to happen with the bed.”

If you spend 15 minutes in bed and can’t sleep, get out bed until you feel more tired. That way, the bed won’t begin to feel like the dentist’s waiting room—a place for worry and waiting. And even if you fall asleep way later than you intended, continue to wake up at your regular time. This system, developed by a UK researcher, can help to prevent the occasional sleeplessness from turning into a full-blown disorder. If symptoms persist for two weeks or longer, consider speaking to your doctor (many are still meeting patients by video conference).

You might find that one silver lining of the current situation is that you actually have more time to sleep, even if it feels elusive. About a third of Americans are sleep deprived—skipping the morning commute might give you the extra hour you’ve always, well, dreamed about. “Some evidence that under periods of stress it might be good to get a little extra sleep,” Grandner says, cautioning that if you feel yourself needing more than eight or nine hours, though, it could be a sign of an underlying problem. More flexible schedules might also leave time for napping. “A short power nap can be great for your productivity,” he says. Just cap it to 30 minutes max, and don’t sleep after 3 or 4 in the afternoon.

Baron says she’s aiming for a 10 p.m. bedtime for herself right now, allowing a full eight hours before facing the next day. “It’s felt really good and cozy,” she says. “You can’t stress about sleep, but it’s a form of self-care.”