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The last time I interviewed the sleep doctor 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 [now] is how much the coronavirus is affecting mental health and sleep.’
Sleep and mental health are connected in a number of ways, says Dr 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 Dr Meadows, is designed to fight off illnesses and viruses. ‘Research has shown that getting seven to eight 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 hard to come by.
‘There are endless reasons why we’re not sleeping very well right now,’ says Dr 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 homeschool young children alongside their work.
‘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 have 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 feel lonely.
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 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 Dr Meadows.
To avoid this, he suggests having a ‘fake commute’. ‘Every morning, take a 10-minute walk/exercise in your house. In the evening, when you shut down your laptop, do the same to transition your mind from work to home time.’ Also, try to spend some time in the balcony where you can get sunlight on your skin – important for good sleep.
Accept your worries
‘Worry keeps people awake,’ says Dr 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 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, 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 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, Dr Meadows says sticking to the basics of good sleep is 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.” When faced with stress, it’s easy to start drinking too much caffeine or smoking. Avoid this.’
Stay informed – but only to a point
‘It’s important we stay informed,’ says Dr Meadows. ‘However, scrolling through bad news will stress you out. 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. Seeing endless posts about baking, decorating, or learning new languages can feel stressful. Know when to switch off.’