Keeping up with the news these days can be extra anxiety-inducing: the novel coronavirus (known as COVID-19) is dominating headlines, from the steadily rising number of cases to its potential effects on the economy. It’s understandable that these thoughts could keep your mind wired at night, preventing you from being able to fall asleep or causing you to wake up in panic during the early morning hours.
“Everything that’s going on right now can make people more vulnerable to insomnia,” says Philip Cheng, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and research scientist at the Sleep Disorders Center at Henry Ford Health. “It’s a vicious cycle: when you lose sleep, your emotions can feel more intense. Your ability to regulate emotions can also become diminished, so existing stressors become more stressful, and the ability to calm down becomes more impaired,” he says. “Also, as you become more stress sensitive, your own thoughts become a trigger for stress.”
If you’re having trouble getting a restful seven to nine hours of sleep (or seven to eight hours if you’re elderly) try not to get anxious about your sleep troubles, as worrying about insomnia will make sleep less likely, advises Dr. Cheng.
Here, he shares what you should and shouldn’t do to tackle bouts of coronasomnia:
- Stick to a routine. “Make sure you have a regular schedule and a stick to your regular wake time,” says Dr. Cheng. “Just because you’re working from home or your appointments are canceled doesn’t mean you should take liberties with your sleep.” Wake up at the same time every morning to help stabilize your circadian rhythm. (The circadian rhythm is how our bodies anticipate when it’s time to sleep and time to wake up.) If you arise at the same time each morning and avoid napping—regardless of how little sleep you had the night before—chances are you’ll be more tired and could get back on track that evening.
There are, however, exceptions to this rule, Dr. Cheng says, like if you’ll be operating heavy machinery, driving, or engaging in jobs or activities that make them dangerous to do while tired. In those cases, sleeping in or napping might be necessary.
- Schedule in wind-down time. Allocate half an hour to an hour before bed as wind-down time. That means relaxing in a room with dim lighting and engaging in a non-stimulating activity, like watching re-runs of your favorite old shows, doing crossword puzzles, or reading a good, old-fashioned paper book.
Suffice it to say, reading the news during this time is not recommended. “The last thing you want to do is hear about the death rate or symptoms of coronavirus right before bed,” says Dr. Cheng. Deep breathing exercises are also a great wind-down activity. He recommends using guided meditation and relaxation apps like Headspace and Insight Timer.
- Stay away from electronics. Another activity that’s not allowed during wind-down time? Mindlessly scrolling through your phone or watching shows on your laptop. There’s evidence that blue light from electronics can impact your circadian rhythm, he says, keeping you wide awake when you’re supposed to be feeling tired.
TV is the exception to this rule—it’s usually far enough from your face that it won’t interfere with your circadian rhythm, unlike phones and laptops, which are held close to your face. If you struggle to relinquish your devices, at least turn on nighttime functions (which both iPhones and androids have) that filter out blue light.
- Create the ideal sleeping environment. A dark room and a room temperature somewhere between 65 and 70 degrees consists of the perfect sleeping conditions, Dr. Cheng says, as temperatures on the cooler side tend to be best for restful sleep. And on that note, don’t take a really hot bath before bed, as it can increase your core body temperature and make it difficult to sleep, he adds.
- Exercise in the afternoon. Because cardio also raises your core body temperature, Dr. Cheng advises against exercising within three hours before bedtime. Afternoon exercise, however, can be beneficial for sleep. “Even more so than in the morning, there’s evidence that exercising in the late afternoon is helpful for deep sleep,” he says.
- Don’t have a large meal right before bed. But if you’re prone to waking up because you’re hungry, having a light snack won’t hurt, like a small portion of crackers, fruit or cheese.
- Limit your caffeine and alcohol intake. “Caffeine can stay in the body for eight hours, which is longer than most people think,” says Dr. Cheng. “I cut off my caffeine intake around 2 or 3 p.m.” Also: while alcohol can make you initially sleepy, it can wake you up as it becomes metabolized in the middle of the night. Avoid it within three hours of bedtime.
- If you do wake up in the middle of the night, get out of bed. Go to a different room that’s comfortable and quiet, and engage in whatever activity you’d be doing during wind-down time—things that occupy your mind in a pleasant way but that aren’t too stimulating.
“The goal is to make you feel sleepy again,” Dr. Cheng explains. “Often times, the temptation is to do dishes or fold laundry, but you don’t want to make this time super productive. That will subconsciously reinforce the notion that you’ll be more productive if you wake up in the middle of the night.”
- When you get back into bed, do not look at your clock. Set the alarm for your usual waking hours and then turn the clock around. Watching the minutes tick by can become an additional stressor, further inhibiting your ability to sleep. “Find a way to destress and sleep will come to you,” says Dr. Cheng. “One of the things we tell patients is that you can’t catch sleep, you have to let sleep catch you.”
If you have sleep concerns, or if you’ve been struggling with insomnia, visit henryford.com/sleep to learn more. For up-to-date information about Henry Ford Health’s response to the coronavirus, visit henryford.com/coronavirus.
Dr. Philip Cheng is a clinical psychologist and sleep research scientist with Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.