NEW YORK CITY (SBG) - Whether you're living in a city that has started to ease restrictions or you’re still spending the majority of your time stuck at home with no real end in sight, there’s a good chance that your daily routine hasn’t returned to its pre-coronavirus “normal.” Some aspects of your life, in fact, may never again resemble the normal of your past, while others could take quite some time to reach that once-familiar place. And however long you end up spending in quarantine, any newly-acquired habits or patterns that you’ve picked up during this strange time have the potential to accompany you into the uncertain future.
But if sleep struggles are one of the lifestyle changes you’re currently experiencing, you don’t have to wait until your life returns back to some kind of normal to try to tackle those issues. Dealing with insomnia or other rest-related problems in the midst of everything else that’s going on in the world might seem overwhelming, but sleep is more important than ever right now.
Having a good snooze is not only valuable for your energy levels the following morning. The health benefits associated with sleep are numerous, encompassing both our physical and psychological well-being. Scientific studies have found well-rested people to have reduced levels of stress, improved cognition, and higher emotional intelligence. Research has also shown that proper sleep can boost the functioning of the immune system, while a lack of sleep increases the risk of diseases and infections, such as type 2 diabetes, the common cold, and hypertension, according to the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School.
It’s plain to see that the benefits that come along with good sleep habits could be particularly useful during the coronavirus pandemic. And depending on how your bedtime routine has shifted over the course of the past couple months, it’s possible that you’ve experienced firsthand the effects that sleep can have on your health and wellness.
“It’s an interesting time to reflect on your sleep,” said Ruthie Nachmany, certified sleep coach and founder of The Rest. “Life has gotten very basic, as we focus on things like eating well, moving the body, seeing sunlight, and sleeping. We’re so much more aware of how these basic needs affect our moods.”
But although you may have more opportunity to reflect on your sleep right now, improving the quality of your rest won’t necessarily be easy. “This is a very stressful time for a lot of people. Things can change in an instant, and they keep changing. If you’re an essential worker, that’s got its own set of stresses. But even if you’re working from home, it’s hard to set boundaries and figure out how to not bring all the stress from your life into your home,” said Nachmany.
Figure out how your sleep fits into your priorities.
The Rest was built out of Nachmany’s own troubles with sleep. “I spent about 15 years sleeping something like four hours a night on average,” she said. “I went to the doctor, I worked out, and I ate well, but I never connected any of that to my sleeping habits, until it started causing a variety of health issues.”
The journey to fix her poor sleep behaviors and improve her health ultimately led Nachmany to become a certified sleep coach. In talking to others about their bedtime struggles, Nachmany realized that her story was actually quite common and founded The Rest as a support system for sleep health and wellness.
“I think a lot of us don’t think as much about sleep as we do about nutrition and exercise and relationships and work. But sleep supports all of those things,” said Nachmany.
Part of her newly launched company’s mission is to provide education about the importance of sleep. “Your sleep is super important during stressful times. If you don’t eat well for a few days, you won’t feel great, but you won’t feel terrible. If you don’t work out for a few days, same thing. But if you don’t sleep for a few days, you’re going to feel really, really bad,” she said.
Save your bed for sleep.
A desire to stay cozy and comfortable while working from home has turned “daytime pajamas” into a quarantine fashion trend, and lounging in bed on your laptop all day long is far too tempting.
Your stylistic decisions aside, experts agree that taking all of your work into the bedroom is not such a great idea. “If you have trouble getting to sleep, wake up in the middle of the night with your mind racing, or just feel like your sleep quality is poor, you should only sleep and have sex in your bed,” Nachmany said. “Don’t hang out there. Don’t read or be on your phone, don’t do work, and don’t watch TV.”
Even if you’re living in a studio apartment, Nachmany suggests finding a space other than the bed area to do anything that could be considered high-intensity or high-anxiety. By moving all other activities elsewhere, the mind will begin to view the bed solely as a place to relax and doze off, rather than a place to worry about your next project or binge-watch the latest Netflix drama.
Plan your sleep schedule ahead of time.
If you scheduled a meeting for work or a Zoom hangout with friends, you’d most likely make a note of the date and time somewhere to ensure that you didn’t forget about your plans. And depending on your own particular level of organizational tendencies, you might map out your workouts every week or follow a strict to-do list during the day.
Nachmany recommends doing the same exact thing for your sleep. “When are you going to sleep? Put sleep in your calendar, and plan how much you’re going to sleep. If you don’t achieve that goal, figure out what went wrong; figure out where you can make slight changes,” she said.
Especially for those working from home, setting boundaries can pose a challenge. When you commute to an office, the workday typically ends when you head home. But if all of your work is right there at home with you, it can be difficult to find an appropriate stopping point that allows you to enjoy a full night of sleep. Scheduling sleep can help your body get the rest that it needs by reminding you that sleep is just as much of a priority as your job is.
Go to bed in your optimal timing range.
Sleep might make its way onto your calendar, but have you scheduled it in the right spot? “Timing is super important. It’s not just how much you sleep. It’s also when you’re going to sleep,” Nachmany explained.
So what’s the best time to hit the hay? There isn’t a universal standard; the ideal bedtime varies from person to person and depends on their individual responsibilities during waking hours. But in general, Nachmany finds that most people go to sleep too late for their optimal timing. As many early morning obligations have been pushed slightly later in the day with stay-at-home schedules, there’s not as much urgency to go to bed at a reasonable hour.
“It’s really important to be mindful of when you’re going to sleep. If you’re able to ride your natural timing and set your body up for success at the beginning of the night to get high-quality deep sleep, your whole sleeping experience will be so much better,” Nachmany said.
Externalize stress both physically and emotionally.
You can turn off the lights, but it doesn’t mean that your mind will automatically turn off as well. If you’re bringing all of your stress and anxiety under the covers with you, you might find yourself lying awake long after your clock has displayed your optimal sleep time. And particularly during the coronavirus pandemic, there are plenty of worries that could keep you counting sheep all night long.
“There are a lot of new stressors that we’re dealing with right now, and you probably have fewer avenues than normal to externalize that stress,” said Nachmany.
She recommends that those struggling with sleep find both physical and emotional outlets for their stress. Any physical activity, whether you’re more in the mood for a short walk around your neighborhood or a late-night Zoom dance party, can help your brain cope better with stress. An emotional release might take the form of journaling before bed or talking about your feelings to someone in your life.
Stress can also bleed into your dreams, leading to increased restlessness throughout the night. “If you’re having crazy, stressful dreams, give yourself a fixed amount of time, whether it’s 10 seconds or 30 minutes, to process what’s going on in your head. It’s really helpful to do that shortly before bed,” Nachmany said.
Make sure your naps are helping, not hurting.
Have you found yourself napping more frequently during quarantine? You’re not alone. “Some people do take stress naps,” said Nachmany. “And in general, there’s a lot of stimulation right now, through calls and conversations and news. How we manage that might make people more tired.”
Naps, according to Nachmany, are “definitely not bad.” However, she recommends that those encountering insomnia hold off from napping. The time of day also matters; a mid-afternoon nap can be rejuvenating, while an evening nap can lead to trouble falling asleep. In addition, Nachmany suggests napping for either a short 20-minute period or a full 90-minute sleep cycle for the optimal experience.
And what about your kids?
The issues surrounding sleep can quickly become amplified when children are factored into the equation. As reported by the New York Times, pediatricians around the world have noticed sleep regressions and disturbances related to the coronavirus outbreak, and as children struggle to sleep during this unfamiliar time, their parents are facing greater difficulties as well.
“A lot of sleep issues are becoming more urgent. Parents are feeling extra stressed being at home with their kids and trying to do their jobs with no childcare,” said Natalie Nevares, expert baby sleep trainer and founder of Mommywise. “With older babies and toddlers who are used to getting higher levels of stimulation during the day, sleep ends up becoming more of a battle. And if a baby hasn’t been sleep trained, then not only are the parents up all night long, but they’re also dealing with a cranky, exhausted baby during the day.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Mommywise offered in-home sleep training in the New York City area. Nevares’ team of trained sleep coaches helped parents get their baby to sleep through the night by living with the families for three days straight and providing their expertise during challenging situations. But when social distancing guidelines put in-home visits on hold, Nevares saw an opportunity to provide virtual help.
“We have all this technology,” said Nevares. “I can use FaceTime or WhatsApp or Zoom or Google Hangouts. We’ve got video monitors that are app-based and WiFi-based, so, with the parents’ permission, I can log into their baby monitors and see the baby in real time. My team and I have been tweaking and testing different things and realizing that it’s actually not that much different from our in-person support.”
Children can pick up on tension.
Even if your children are too young to understand exactly what’s going on in the world, they’re still able to sense any fears and worries that may be present in the household.
“I spoke to one woman who said she’s been fighting with her husband nonstop, and that’s probably part of her child’s sleep problem. If they’re yelling at each other all the time, the baby is aware that there’s a lot of tension,” said Nevares.
Constant discussions of negative news or frequent arguments can be easily absorbed and may ultimately translate into sleep disturbances. In the same way that your anxieties might be keeping you up at night, your children could be up at unusual hours grappling with similar emotions, regardless of whether or not they’re able to fully process them. Trying to limit coronavirus-related discussions around your children could help to ease their troubles, and making sure that your own needs are being met physically and emotionally is essential.
“Now is the time to take care of ourselves,” Nevares said. “If we don’t, that will have major implications on our children, who are looking at us and need us to be at full capacity.”
It’s OK to ask for help.
Getting a good night’s sleep may be difficult, but reaching out for help can be even harder. A fear of being stigmatized can keep someone from seeking the support that they need, as could a pessimistic attitude regarding the effectiveness of the resources available. But given the undeniable importance of sleep for your overall well-being, you may consider looking for outside assistance if you’re not finding much success on your own.
“People are really struggling right now,” said Nachmany. “I check Twitter every morning, and I see so many people at 4 a.m. being like, ‘What do I do? How can I go to sleep?’ I’ve found that people are really grasping for any recommendations and tips.”
To help those who are battling sleep issues during quarantine, The Rest has opened up two hours of complimentary sleep consultations on Thursday, May 21. During the consultation, a certified sleep coach will listen to the challenges that you’re currently facing and discuss what can be done to improve your sleep health.
For Nevares, the coronavirus pandemic has presented her with the opportunity to provide assistance to as many people as she possibly can. The pivot to a virtual business model has made Mommywise’s services more accessible to families across the world, at a time when getting babies to sleep soundly is more crucial than ever.
“There’s support for everybody who needs it. I want all parents to know that it’s OK to reach out for help, and now more than ever,” Nevares said. “You can’t survive with this level of sleep deprivation. Your immune system is so weakened when you’re exhausted. If you can’t sleep, it’s vital that you get help.”