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How to sleep easy during a global pandemic

People sleeping in a bed

In a time of major upheaval, it is hardly surprising that so many people are experiencing disturbingly vivid dreams and disruption to their sleep. The hashtag ‘can’t sleep’ has been trending on Twitter for much of the lockdown and Google searches for ‘insomnia’ and ‘sleep help’ have also seen a significant rise.

People have had their lives turned upside down since 23 March, when the UK was put under lockdown. Without the familiar patterns of work and school, and with limited access to the world beyond the home’s four walls, the key ingredients of a healthy life – regular sleep patterns, mealtimes, fresh air and exercise – are no longer part of a fixed routine.

The loss of the daily commute and school run for many has offered the promise of longer hours in bed. But while some of us may be sleeping more, to catch up on an existing sleep deficit, others may be sleeping less.

The problems resulting from this big change in our lives range from an inability to fall asleep and restlessness throughout the night to sluggishness in the morning.

Counsellor, well-being and mental health expert Delphi Ellis, who has a special interest in sleep and dreams, says, “People have been thrust completely into a different world and there’s a huge pressure on parents to be all things to their children. This is going to have an effect on the quality of their sleep, which is always one of the first things to be impacted by stress.”

Uncertainty can lead to an increase in stress hormones such as cortisol, which helps regulate our sleep-wake cycle. As sleep scientist Dr Sophie Bostock explains, “Our brains respond to uncertainty by becoming more vigilant. We’re on a higher alertness setting, day and night, and less able to drift into the deeper, more restorative phases of sleep.”

Not only are we living with these heightened levels of anxiety, but we’re also having to deal with the disturbance to our natural circadian rhythm. This is the ‘internal clock’ that controls body temperature and hormones in order to make us feel alert during the day and tired at night.

The circadian rhythm depends upon regular mealtimes and exposure to natural light to function efficiently. As Ellis says, “Even in the industrialised 21st century world, we are still governed by agricultural time – by the sun, moon and seasons.”

In spite of the challenges to a perfect night’s sleep posed by this disruption to our daily lives, there are steps we can all take to improve our sleeping.

Exposure to daylight

It’s important to get outside as much as possible during the day, as natural light has a powerful alerting effect on the brain. To avoid feelings of sluggishness, try to build outdoor exercise into your morning routine and don’t forget breakfast: daylight, exercise and food are all essential ingredients in making you feel energised.

Routine is important

When all else seems in a state of flux, we take comfort in regularity. Dr Bostock explains, “If you wake, exercise, eat and sleep at similar times each day, seven days a week, all the body's systems will be working in sync with each other. Melatonin, the 'ready-for-bed' hormone, will kick in at the same time each night, and reward you with a more restorative sleep.”

You need not follow your old routines: instead, establish new ones that suit your natural sleep patterns. If you go to bed when you’re tired and get up when you wake, a pattern will eventually emerge reflecting your natural circadian rhythm. Experts agree that between seven and nine hours’ sleep is ideal.

A winding-down routine

Being flexible with children’s bedtime may not always be easy, accepts Ellis, but you can establish a calm atmosphere in the evening to help prepare for sleep.

She advises a general slowing down at least an hour before bed, playing quiet music, dimming the lights, bedtime stories and a warm bath. All these things can reduce tension and encourage sleepiness.

In fact, this advice is extended to every age: “All the things we would encourage our children to do are just as important for adults.”

Experts agree that in this period before bed, you should disconnect from your devices and do relaxing activities such as reading, meditating and having a bath. Checking the news on phones and laptops is particularly to be avoided. The combination of bright light and psychological stress will adversely affect levels of both melatonin and cortisol, making it all the harder to get to sleep.

And make sure you use the winding-down period to go over problems and work things out, thereby uncluttering your mind before bed.

Protect the bedroom environment

Although it’s tempting to lounge around in bed during these long days at home, it’s important to try and make your bed feel like the place you relax and sleep at night, rather than the place you snack, watch movies or worry. For those living in a small flat, Dr Bostock suggests, “Change the appearance of the bed with a different bedcover or cushions during the day vs night, so that the brain registers a transition to night time.”

When it’s time for sleep, make the room as cool, dark and quiet as possible.

Learning to relax

Relaxing and letting go of the day’s worries is something that often has to be learnt. When your mind is racing at the end of the day, meditation, mindfulness and breathing exercises are all powerful tools to induce a sense of calm.

Several companies with online relaxation support, such as Headspace and Calm, have made free content available on their apps in response to the Covid-19 crisis. We’ve tested 10 of the best such mental wellbeing apps in this guide.

Stop trying to sleep

Even if you have managed to stop the spiralling thoughts and have dropped off to sleep, the chances are you’re waking in the night.

Ellis says, “There's well documented research that people tend to wake up between two and four in the morning, when there’s something on their mind.” With so much to worry about at the moment, it’s no surprise this is affecting a great many people. It’s how we respond to finding ourselves awake that’s significant, explains Ellis.

“We naturally move into a light sleep – even wakeful – phase every hour and a half to two hours.” If this triggers a sense of alarm and anxiety about being awake, you’re immediately caught in a vicious cycle. She recommends “acceptance” and says the best thing to do is think, “Okay, I'm awake. I'm going to listen to my breathing, or just pause for a moment, take a nice deep breath, and just slowly sink into the natural rhythm of my breathing.”

Trying hard to fall asleep just makes it all the more elusive. If your body isn’t ready to sleep, don’t try to force it; instead, get up and go elsewhere to read, do a crossword, or something similarly relaxing.

Pandemic dreaming

Disturbed sleep and longer sleep are both, according to experts, contributing to the current phenomenon of pandemic dreams – in which dreams are both apparently more plentiful and vivid.

At least five research teams worldwide are collecting examples of people’s dreams and investigating the effects of isolation, stress and changes in sleep patterns.

Ellis explains that the 90-minute cycle of light sleep, deep sleep and REM, or dreaming sleep, is something we all experience nightly. But the fact many people are now sleeping later in the morning means they are spending more time in dreaming sleep just before they wake up. This might explain why, according to a study by the Lyon Neuroscience Research Center, dream recall is up by 35 per cent since March.

Recalling your dreams

The quality of sleep is likely to be another factor: the more you drift in and out of sleep, the more likely you are to recall your dreams. And the more worried you’re feeling, the more intense and memorable the content.

More than 75 per cent of respondents in a study by postgraduate students at University College London’s (UCL) Psychoanalysis Unit are reporting more vivid dreams in lockdown and many are waking up feeling anxious and confused.

Professor Mark Blagrove, a psychologist at Swansea University, reports in the New Scientist that, “Our dreams are more likely to incorporate memories from recent waking life that are emotional.” His research supports the theory that dreams act as a kind of therapy, a way for us to work through emotions and fears.

Dreams, in fact, act in a number of ways, as Ellis explains: “They can be a mirror of our experience and literally reflect the day’s events and they can also be like a friend giving us advice, pointing out in our sleep things we know subconsciously. When you’re having some kind of anxiety or trauma, that’s when dreams are full of death, destruction and chaos. It’s like an interpretation or translation.”

Disturbing dreams

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, frontline healthcare workers are reporting some of the most disturbing dreams reflecting intense emotions. In a dream discussion forum for health workers, set up by Blagrove, a nurse recounts a dream of being outside a house where a party is going on and being unable to communicate to the occupants the approaching danger.

Another key worker, involved in the UCL study, tells of being in a packed section of an almost empty theatre and a man sitting backwards starting to cough.

Insects are apparently a feature of many people’s dreams, agrees Ellis, who recalls the radio producer who dreamt of maggots coming out of her face: “Insects and bugs are representative of the virus and our fear that the virus is going to get the better of us.”

Dealing with your dreams

A key thing to remember is that dreaming is a normal function of our brain which enables us to process deep-seated fears and emotions, as well as making sense of our daily lives.

One way to deal with the feelings of uneasiness that come with disturbing dreams is, according to Blagrove’s research, to talk about them. In Ellis’s words, “Talking about your dreams is really key, not just to understanding them, but to connecting with others and building empathy.”

If you want to get involved with the UCL student’s project, visit lockdowndreams.com, where you can ‘Submit a Dream’

Image: Detailblick_foto/stock.adobe.com


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