Sleep quality took a nosedive 2020. With sky-high anxiety over COVID-19, along with family disruptions, financial setbacks and cabin fever from outdoor restrictions, a good night’s sleep was hard to find. Patients frequently complained of sleep disturbances to their doctors and online searches for insomnia skyrocketed.
Now, in 2021, it’s time to reset your sleep routine. Start by focusing on sleep hygiene — not just hand hygiene — as a health essential. When you hit the pillow, turn on the white noise and tune out dire pandemic news flashes and stress-inducing online chatter. Try a different kind of mask — a light-blocking eye mask — to promote better sleep.
Below, sleep experts offer multiple tips for improving sleep and building sleep-promoting habits as part of your routine:
— Reestablish waking and bedtime rituals.
— Avoid overexposure to stressful news and social media.
— Ease away from blue light and screens before bed.
— Get a handle on alcohol — when and how much you drink.
— Reduce afternoon caffeine.
— Set clear boundaries between virtual work and home life.
— Put your bedroom — especially your bed — off-limits for meetings, emails and assignments.
— Keep a ‘worry journal’ to release anxiety pressure before bed.
— Go outdoors — safely — and experience natural daylight.
— Exercise and be physically active.
— Teach kids to prioritize sleep.
— Don’t wait — start reintroducing good sleep hygiene now.
[See: Steps to Fall Asleep Fast.]
Ease Suffering Sleep
During the pandemic, Google searches related to insomnia spiked by almost 60% in early 2020, compared to the same months in previous years, according to a study published online Sept. 25 in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.
“Unfortunately, people have been suffering,” says Dr. Kannan Ramar, president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Pervasive worry is a major factor in sleep disruption, says Ramar, who is a pulmonologist, critical care specialist and sleep medicine specialist at Mayo Clinic, and a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science.
When it comes to COVID-19 concerns, “Interestingly — but not surprisingly — people have more worries about their loved ones than about themselves,” says Ramar, who shares this sleep-restoring advice:
— Take a break from social media stimulation and the 24/7 news cycle. Reduce worry and stress by turning off the TV and going offline at night. “When people watch stress-inducing news, particularly close to bedtime, that can keep them awake,” Ramar says. “Shutting off social media, news and online channels — a least one to two hours before bedtime — will all help.”
— Cut back on nightcaps. Drinking has increased during the pandemic. “That has some negative consequences related to falling asleep, particularly if you have alcohol too close to bedtime,” Ramar says. “Though it may help you fall asleep, as long as the alcohol is in your system afterward, it tends to disrupt you and wake you up periodically.” Daytime sleepiness and fatigue then follow. “If you’re having alcohol, consider moderating consumption and making sure you stop at least one to two hours, or even earlier if possible, before bedtime,” he advises.
— Set limits on coffee. Caffeine stays in your system for about four to six hours, Ramar notes. A late-afternoon or early-evening cup of coffee — or other caffeine product — could keep you from falling or staying asleep. “Just limiting caffeine intake and trying to avoid having any, ideally, after 2 p.m., if not noon, would be something to think about,” he says. Getting into a vicious cycle of drinking more alcohol in the evening — and then chasing it with free-flowing coffee during the day to feel alert — is another pitfall to avoid.
— Make clear transitions between phases of your day. Instead of letting virtual work or school bleed into your downtime or family time, set boundaries that allow you to wind down. “Keeping a routine where you really allot time for work during the day, then say, ‘I’m done with my work,'” after a certain period is important for a healthy lifestyle and well-being, Ramar says. “That also translates to making sure you get good sleep, too.”
— Exercise. “Just like good nutrition and regular exercise, sleep is one of those three pillars for a healthy lifestyle,” Ramar says. In particular, being more physically active will help you sleep more soundly.
— Ease anxiety by journaling. “If you are carrying a lot of worries to bed, try having a journaling time or what we call a ‘worrying time’ for 20 to 30 minutes before bedtime,” Ramar suggests. “Taking things off your mind and putting them in a journal or diary tends to clear the mind.”
Revitalize Family Sleep
Children and parents alike are experiencing pandemic-related effects on sleep, says Dr. Caroline Okorie a pediatric pulmonologist and sleep specialist with Stanford Children’s Health in Palo Alto, California.
“As sleep experts we are seeing, anecdotally, more people have a hard time falling asleep and staying asleep,” says Okorie, who is also a clinical assistant professor with Stanford University School of Medicine. “A little more fatigue during the day and just parents feeling like they don’t have that reliable sleep that they’re used to.”
Sleep problems are worth nipping in the bud. “Good sleep helps kids grow and helps them learn,” Okorie says. “Sleep is good for your immune system, it’s good for your mood. And we know that poor sleep is associated with low mood, and some kids can be more hyperactive and have a hard time concentrating.”
During pandemic lockdowns or restrictions, multiple factors — lack of routine, less time outdoors, less light exposure and less physical activity — can all play a role in disrupting sleep for kids, Okorie says. Take these steps to help get your family’s sleep back on track:
— Reestablish a timely routine. “That’s easier said than done, but it’s worth the effort,” Okorie says. “Even try to reestablish that routine slowly, depending on the needs of the family. That means trying to wake up at around the same time, going to bed at the same time, even having a set time for meals, if possible.”
— Get natural daytime light. It’s also helps to have scheduled times to go outside safely — in natural light, if possible, Okorie says. “Some people are in snowy areas right now,” she notes. “But trying to get some light during the day might be good.”
— Don’t let beds become desks. As bedrooms morph into virtual workspaces and classrooms, sound sleep can go by the wayside. “If you’re doing homework or classwork, do it at a table or somewhere other than your bed,” Okorie recommends.
— Encourage kids to make sleep a priority. “Start talking to your kids about the importance of sleep,” Okorie says. “You may want to help them prioritize it to get them onboard. That’s something I recommend, especially for school-age teenagers.” Let kids express their priorities, too. “Definitely, some shared decision-making is needed.”
— Start retooling sleep now. “We’re not out of the pandemic yet, but anytime is a good time to start to try and reestablish your routine and get your schedule back on track,” Okorie says. “Whatever makes most sense for families.” Each family is different, she emphasizes. “Every family might have their own path for getting to where their ideal state is — or closer to their ideal state. But let’s say they try and it doesn’t work — they can try again.”
The pandemic has created a few silver linings. “Some parents have said it’s been nice to have time home with their families,” Okorie notes. “They’re able to tuck their kids in at night, which some weren’t able to do when they were commuting home from work, and things like that.” But overall, she adds, “It’s been tough on families, for sure.”
Revamp Healthy Sleep Habits
“Sleep is a big issue for a lot of people and certainly was even before the pandemic,” says Dr. Don Mordecai, national leader for mental health and wellness at Kaiser Permanente. With the pandemic, it’s been easy to fall into a rut and let self-care slip for people who are primarily staying at home, he says.
Good sleep doesn’t always just happen, he emphasizes. It’s important to develop habits to prepare for healthy sleep, says Mordecai, who is an adjunct clinical professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine. In this pandemic transition period, he says, “Ideally, you would use this as an opportunity to build some of those habits.” Incorporate these steps into your daily — and nightly — routine:
— Develop a pre-bedtime ritual. “That could be reading a book — but not too exciting a book — whatever it is that helps you relax,” Mordecai says. It could mean exercising earlier in the day, he says, and perhaps practicing mindfulness in the evening.
— Reserve the bedroom for sleep and sex. “Don’t use it to do your taxes and emails,” Mordecai says. “You’re essentially training your brain to think of your bed and your bedroom as this multipurpose place.” Instead, keep your bed — and entire bedroom space if you can — separate from your daytime surroundings and workplace trappings.
— Save jammies for bedtime. On a similar note, it’s possible to work from home in pajamas — but that doesn’t make it a good idea. Think about it: If you work in your pajamas during the day, it means you’re sleeping in your work clothes at night. Create separation in your day and find some kind of workday outfit, even if it’s just comfy sweats.
— Watch out for light-emitting screens. Blue light, or any light, is not conducive to sleep. “We know that light around the time of bedtime is really distracting for your brain,” Mordecai says. “It tells your brain basically to stay awake, that it’s still light outside. If you have to use the screen late at night, or you really like to read on the screen, try to use dark mode or really dim it down.”
— Create a sleep-friendly environment. Brush up on sleep-hygiene guidelines, like keeping your bedroom dark, cool and clutter-free. A nighttime heat setting of 70 or 72 degrees at home is typically too warm, Mordecai says. Lower your thermostat to mid-60s or lower, if possible.
What if you’re still having trouble getting enough rest? Consider seeking professional advice, experts suggest. “If people have had symptoms of difficulty falling asleep, and maintaining sleep in particular, that’s lasted beyond a three-to-four week period — despite trying different measures including some of these healthy tips — they should consult their primary care physician, or a sleep physician if one is close to their area, to get some help,” Ramar says.
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Sleep Reset 2021: Getting Your Sleep Back to Normal originally appeared on usnews.com
Update 01/06/21: A previous version of this story listed title/affiliation information for Dr. Don Mordecai that is no longer current.