Sleeping well during uncertainty

For every single one of us, 2020 has altered our lives in some way. Routines, work patterns and relationships have changed – and in many cases our sleep quality and quantity has undoubtedly been affected too.

In fact, a sleep specialist described the pandemic as the ‘perfect storm of sleep problems’ when addressing a Harvard Public Health forum recently(1). And it’s easy to see why: some of us have turned off the alarm because we’ve been furloughed, some of us are working late into the night because we’ve been home-schooling all day, and some of us are lying awake worrying about the risks the virus poses to our friends and family.

We miss loved ones, we may have had to grieve in isolation, we have reduced opportunities to get outside and to take part in activities we enjoy, we may fear losing our jobs or our companies – and every time we log on to social media we’re being told that we should be making sourdough bread and learning a new language during lockdown.

This melting pot of distance from loved ones, finding a whole new work/life balance, financial and health worries, and being bombarded by negative media is bound to throw us off kilter and impact our sleep, which in turn risks worsening our physical and mental health.

– What’s the impact of poor sleep?

We all know poor sleep (whether that’s struggling to drift off, waking frequently during the night, or never quite reaching that deeper level of sleep) can make us feel grouchy and lethargic the next day, but there are so many ways in which prolonged problems with sleep can impact our health:

Physically, extended sleep issues lead to an increased risk of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. Mentally, concentration and decision-making – as well as our overall mood and wellbeing – are impacted severely by sleep problems. And of course, increased risk of accidents comes hand in hand with those effects, especially if you’re then trying to work or drive(2).

– Why does worrying stop us sleeping?

Poor sleep can be caused by any combination of factors, from not actually getting to bed because you’re too busy working at night to being kept awake by a partner snoring, but what about those nights where you’re lying in bed trying your best to sleep and you just can’t switch off?

If you’ve experienced plenty of those nights recently, then you’re certainly not alone, and you may recognise the problem has escalated hand-in-hand with your levels of worry.

We’d like to think we are highly evolved but the truth is, our brains still respond to danger in much the same way that our counterparts in the animal kingdom would. If we perceive there is a thread, then we react with increased vigilance and attention(3) – it makes sense in lots of ways because you should be more alert when crossing a road, or driving, or any other situation where you could come to harm. But your bed should be a sanctuary where you feel relaxed enough to drift off into a deep sleep, which is tricky at the best of times when there are so many things to think about, let alone during the middle of a global pandemic.

Check out Paycare‘s five tips for better sleep:

1. Establish a routine – our whole schedules have been turned upside down, but we know going to bed and getting up at roughly the same time can have a real impact on how you feel. America’s National Sleep Foundation suggests making gradual adjustments, changing your timings by 15 minutes increments until you’re in a pattern that works for you(4).

2. Cut down on drinking – Consuming alcohol can reduce the time we spend in the important REM stage of sleep, and can increase overnight waking. According to an Alcohol Change study, 8.6 million adults in the UK are drinking more during lockdown(5). Having alcohol-free days or reducing the units consumed each time you drink can be a good way to head towards a better sleep pattern.

3. Don’t work in bed – It can be tempting if you’re working from home to sit in your warm and comfy bed, but while it might feel nice at the time, it creates an association in your brain between work and the bedroom – which can then be a problem when you’re trying to sleep.

4. Wind down before bed – a long bath followed by a skincare routine and an hour of reading might not be a feasible evening routine for many of us (as much as advertising might try and make you believe that), but you should be doing something that unwinds you from the stresses and strains of the day before you get into bed. It might be turning your phone off an hour before bed, meditating or simply focusing on deep breathing and calming thoughts for a short while, or jotting down a few things you’re grateful for in a notepad. Whatever it is, spending five minutes unwinding is better than spending zero minutes doing it! Try and work something into your evening schedule, no matter how small.

5. Reduce the impact of the outside world – we all want to keep up with the news but scrolling endlessly (especially just before bedtime) is going to result in us carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders. Limiting catching up on the latest news to once or twice a day can be a good way to reduce your potential exposure to stress without being totally ignorant to the outside world. Sharing your worries with friends, family and colleagues can also make your mind feel like it’s whirring a little less when you close your eyes at night.

If sleep is impacting your mental health, the Mental Health Foundation has a ‘How to Sleep Better’ booklet which may be useful: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/how-sleep-better

Remember, many of our Health Cash Plans provide Paycare Policyholders with full access to our Confidential Counselling and Helpline Service*, which could help unburden you if you’re struggling. Find out more by logging into your MyPaycare Area, or call a member of the team on 01902 371000.

*To check if the Confidential Counselling and Helpline Service is included in your plan, and for further information about the service, please refer to your Benefit Table.

Sources:

1. The Harvard Gazette | Insomnia in a Pandemic | https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/04/sleep-problems-becoming-risk-factor-as-pandemic-continues/
2. NHS | Why Lack of Sleep is Bad for your Health | https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/sleep-and-tiredness/why-lack-of-sleep-is-bad-for-your-health/
3. Harvard Health Publishing | Strategies to Promote Better Sleep in these Uncertain Times | https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/strategies-to-promote-better-sleep-in-these-uncertain-times-2020032719333
4. Sleep.org | How to Get on a Sleep Schedule | https://www.sleep.org/articles/get-sleep-schedule/
5. Alcohol Change UK | Drinking During Lockdown: Headline Findings | https://alcoholchange.org.uk/blog/2020/covid19-drinking-during-lockdown-headline-findings