7 Tips for Troubleshooting Sleep Problems During COVID-19

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has disrupted nearly every aspect of daily life, including sleep for many people. Whether you’re sleeping too much or having trouble sleeping, you’re not alone.

“During this pandemic, there’s so much unpredictability and ambiguity in our world. Most people are experiencing a heightened stress response,” says UNC Health clinical psychologist Linda Myerholtz, PhD. “Our nervous systems are on overdrive, and we’re constantly on alert because we’re dealing with a threat that is unprecedented for most of us. It’s not surprising that lots of people are having more difficulty sleeping.”

Being physically distant from loved ones can cause feelings of loneliness, which can lead to depression and sleeping too much or even insomnia.

“Human beings aren’t as good as some other animals at stepping out of that stress response, but we need to be able to do that to activate our relaxation response,” Dr. Myerholtz says.

In other words, we need to find ways to calm our minds and bodies so we can sleep. After all, getting the proper amount of quality sleep is vital to our mental and physical health.

Dr. Myerholtz offers these seven tips for combating sleep difficulties during COVID-19 and beyond.

1. Go easy on alcohol.

While alcohol sales have increased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, and you may think alcohol helps you sleep better, it actually disrupts the sleep cycle, Dr. Myerholtz says.

“Alcohol is a sedative, but sedation is not sleep. That’s where people get mixed up sometimes,” she says. “Alcohol reduces the amount of time that our brains naturally spend in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is our dream sleep.”

REM sleep is essential and restorative to your body. Even though it is tempting to have a few glasses of wine before bed to help you feel relaxed and drowsy, you may be causing yourself to get less restful sleep.

2. Engage in physical activity.

Discharge some of that pent-up energy your nervous system is creating right now with physical activity. That doesn’t mean you have to do an intense workout or go for a 3-mile run, unless that is what you normally do.

It can mean taking a brisk walk, playing in the yard with your kids, doing jumping jacks or dancing in an online Zumba class.

“It’s getting out some of that physical energy, which is good for our sleep. It also helps down-regulate our nervous systems,” Dr. Myerholtz says.

Just remember to avoid exercise at least two hours before turning in, because the adrenaline and other neurotransmitters you generate from physical activity can make your brain particularly active.

3. Stick to a routine.

If you’re working from home or not working while your workplace is closed, it can be tempting to stay up late binge-watching your favorite Netflix show. After all, you can sleep in, right? Dr. Myerholtz advises against it.

“I encourage people to get up when they would typically for work and to try to maintain a similar bedtime,” Dr. Myerholtz says. “It is important to maintain your routine with sleep because that works really well for our brains, knowing how to transition to sleep time and wake time.”

Also, don’t hit the snooze button too much—even if you can.

“I really discourage the use of a snooze button because an alarm going off is a cardiovascular stressor,” Dr. Myerholtz says. “If we continue to hit the snooze button multiple times, we’re just raising our stress levels.”

While this may not be a problem if you do it once in a while, Dr. Myerholtz says getting in the habit of repeatedly hitting snooze adds undue stress to your body and mind.

Even if you have the flexibility to do so, it’s best to avoid taking naps during the day. Naps can disrupt your natural circadian rhythm that regulates the sleep-wake cycle, Dr. Myerholtz says.

4. Limit news and social media.

While it is important to stay informed from trusted news sources, you don’t need 24-hour COVID-19 coverage. Take a break from media coverage and social media, especially if you find yourself worrying about the news or an article you read.

“Be mindful about how much attention you’re paying to the news so you’re not constantly exposing yourself to that trigger of your stress response,” Dr. Myerholtz says.

Don’t watch the news right before bed, she says.

Instead, engage in something that’s just fun or meaningful, such as calling a loved one, playing a board game with your family, reading or taking a bath.

“Relaxing is an important part of getting ready for bed and making that transition from a worried brain to a relaxed brain,” Dr. Myerholtz says.

5. Don’t take your work to bed.

It’s important to be mindful of what you’re using your bedroom for besides sleep. You may not realize it, but your brain is constantly building routines and associations that may help or hinder your ability to sleep.

“The bedroom is really for two things: sex and sleeping,” Dr. Myerholtz says. “If you’re working from home, don’t work in your bed, because we want the brain to cue that this is your rest place.”

Don’t watch TV or look at your phone in bed, because the kind of light these devices emit can interfere with the production of the hormone melatonin, which helps your brain regulate your sleep cycles.

“Reading in bed can be OK as long as you’re not using a tablet, which emits the same kind of troublesome light as a TV or a phone,” Dr. Myerholtz says.

Minimize caffeine and nicotine use close to bedtime, and make sure your sleep environment is cool and dark.

6. Practice mindfulness.

Try to engage in some mindfulness activities if you have trouble turning off your brain from worry or fear when you go to bed.

“Mindfulness gives your mind something else to focus on, and there are activities designed to send our brain the signals that say, ‘Things are good right now. I don’t have to be on high alert. I can step away from that,’” Dr. Myerholtz says.

One mindfulness technique she recommends is called the “Three Senses” exercise that helps your mind focus on the present:

  • Close your eyes.
  • Note five things you hear: “I hear a car going by. I hear the furnace kicking on. I hear a bird outside my window. I hear my own breath. I hear the fan whirling above.”
  • Then switch senses and do five things you feel, then five things you see (in your mind’s eye, because your eyes are closed).
  • Start again with hearing, but list four things for each sense, then three, then two and finally one.
  • If you lose track of what number you’re on, no worries, just start right back at five.

“That mindfulness exercise often helps people fall asleep or at least transition from the busyness of their mind and their worry to a place where they’re focusing on the here and the now,” Dr. Myerholtz says. “That sends the brain an important signal that it doesn’t have to be on high alert.”

Dr. Myerholtz also recommends Yoga nidra, a meditation practice designed to help people fall asleep. You can also check out some mindfulness and meditation apps to help find your calm.

7. Get out of bed if sleep eludes you too long.

So you’ve made your room quiet and dark, skipped wine before bed, haven’t checked Facebook from your pillow and tried some mindfulness exercises. But instead of drifting off, you stare at the clock, worrying about COVID-19. What now?

Get out of bed, go to another room and do something boring, such as reading a book or magazine that’s not particularly interesting to you. When you start to feel sleepy, lie down and try to sleep again. If you’re still awake after 20 minutes, get up and repeat the process.

“What we don’t want for people is to fall into this pattern where their brain is starting to associate bed with tossing and turning and worrying,” Dr. Myerholtz says. “We want the brain to associate bed as your place of calm where you sleep and restore.”

For the latest information on COVID-19, visit the CDC website and the UNC Health COVID-19 Resources page, and follow UNC Health on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.