There’s a lot to be anxious about right now. About 18% of Americans struggle with anxiety during regular circumstances, and that number rose to 30% in late May due to COVID-19. The number is expected to increase due to the ongoing national focus on police brutality and systemic racism. As we all navigate uncertain times, this anxiety can cause issues with our sleep.
“Sleep plays a major role in physical and mental health,” says Patrick K. Porter, founder of BrainTap, a brain-based wellness app that helps reduce stress. “Before the pandemic consumed our lives, sleep deprivation was a growing health problem in America affecting one in three people.”
Stressful events such as the loss of a loved one or getting laid off create anxiety that naturally disrupts sleep, says Christopher Lindholst, sleep expert and CEO of MetroNaps, makers of napping pods. “Right now, we’re all going through a stressful situation, and many of us are not sleeping well,” he says.
While many of us understand that sleep is important when we’re ill, it’s also vital for mental healing. “If you don’t get sufficient sleep, it can have a massive impact on your ability to cope with stress,” says Lindholst.
Fortunately, quality is more important than quantity when it comes to sleep, says Porter. There are several things you can do to improve yours:
Turn off the news
While it’s important to know what’s going on in the world, violent or disturbing program will disrupt your sleep. Switch off news programs and avoid violent movies one to two hours before bed. That also means not bringing your phone or tablet to bed with you to read the news, says Lindholst.
“That’s likely going to increase your anxiety, and you don’t want the stories about the current environment to be the last thing you think about before turning off the light,” he says. “It doesn’t mean you can’t follow along with the news. Just don’t do it at 10 p.m. Most networks are not recording anything new, and it’s not likely you’ll miss anything.”
Instead, read something other than the news, such as a book or magazine. This process can be relaxing.
Don’t tackle anything analytical
In addition to turning off the news, watch what you do or read before you go to bed, says Porter. “Anything that could be considered analytical, or a ‘left brain function,’ can disrupt sleep,” he says.
Avoid reading anything technical or doing activities such as your taxes. “Anything that can stimulate your analytical brain can trigger worry and anxiety for a good number of people, and they may not able to disengage,” says Porter.
Turn off lights
It’s not just blue screens that can keep you awake, says Porter; it’s all light. “Start turning down your lights an hour and a half to two hours before you go to bed,” he says. “This helps your brain start gearing down.”
Also, make your bedroom as dark as possible. “One hundred years ago people slept 12 hours a day because they had to burn candles,” he says. “Today, the light from your cell phone can disrupt your sleep. If you must have your phone in your bedroom, put it at least four feet away.”
Porter says unless we’re in the deepest level of sleep, our brains are scanning the environment. “An outside noise or light can disrupt that,” he says. “Sleep studies have found that every time a phone pings, the person comes out of their sleep cycle. It’s the brain’s way of asking, ‘Am I safe? Is it okay here?'”
Watch your nap time
Humans are programmed to take naps, and many of us get a drowsy spell in the early afternoon, says Lindholst.
“It’s normal to feel tired, and a short nap of 10 to 20 minutes can be a great way to boost alertness and long-term health,” he says. “Also, naps can be a good way to address anxiety, as they give you a break mentally, allowing your brain to process information.”
Lindholst recommends taking a 10- to 20-minute nap, but set a timer to make sure you don’t sleep longer. “Don’t overnap,” he says. “Ten to 20 minutes keep you in the lighter stages of sleep. If you go into deeper sleep, you will feel grogginess when you wake up.”
Watch what you drink
Alcohol is a depressant, and it has the ability to make you tired. When it’s in your bloodstream, it can create a problem, says Lindholst.
“Alcohol disrupts your REM sleep, which is when the memory consolidates,” he says. “It can also create a tendency to wake up in the middle of the night, which is disruptive. It’s okay to have a beer or glass of wine with dinner, but an old-fashioned nightcap isn’t recommended.”
Also pay attention to caffeine, which stays in your bloodstream for eight hours. “When people have trouble falling asleep, one of the first things we look at is caffeine,” he says. “Keep your intake to the morning or very early afternoon. It’s best to avoid it after 2 p.m.”
Avoid the bedtime snack
Digestion takes up to 10% of the body’s energy, and you cannot reach a deep level of sleep until your food moves into the small intestine, says Porter.
“Don’t drink or eat any food except for water at least two hours before bed, and it’s best to go four hours,” he says. “Your sleep cycles can’t start until digestion is over. If you don’t start sleep cycles, you don’t trigger melatonin, which should be triggered between midnight and 2 a.m. for quality sleep.”
Find a way to cool down
Our body has to lower its core temperature to sleep well, says Porter. To help, keep your bedroom a little cooler at night. Turn down the thermostat and adjust your bedding, such as using breathable natural fabrics that can also wick away sweat. The National Sleep Foundation says 65 degrees is optimal.
Avoid working out before you go to sleep, as it can raise your body temperature. Taking a warm bath before bed, however, can help. Once you step out of the water, your body will cool down as the moisture evaporates from your skin.
Create a healthy bedtime routine
It may seem like you’re reverting to childhood, but having a set bedtime and routine can help you fall asleep. Doing the same thing each night at a consistent time creates cues that tell your mind and body that it’s time to relax.
Lindholst recommends listening to soothing music, white noise, or even a bedtime story to help yourself relax as well as reduce anxieties that may be preoccupying your brain.
“The key thing is to try to continue your normal sleep routine,” says Lindholst. “If it was not good before, you’ll need to work on creating a good routine now. Since most of us are home and don’t have a million excuses for doing something else, it’s a good time to make sleep a priority. Improving your sleep could be one of the benefits to come out of this.”