Curing Coronasomnia: Four Tips from Neuroscience

Allow sleep to be the constant in an ever-changing world.

Posted Nov 29, 2020

Covid-19 has affected all aspects of our lives, especially our sleep. Clinical insomnia has seen a significant rise since the pandemic began, and it is expected to continue.  Although we are well aware of how important sleep is, it is often one of the first things we neglect, especially in times of uncertainty. Even if we are only facing light sleep deprivation, it can still cause unwanted changes in our brains' health.

The brain is the control center for everything we do and is the most vital organ in the body—it controls movement, circulation, heart rate, temperature, and many other bodily functions. It is also responsible for learning, memory, how you pay attention, and how you receive and process information. Sleep is the foundation of brain health, and without it, we can compromise all of the functions it performs daily.

The pandemic’s changes to your daily life may affect your ability to get your best sleep. You may not be getting your usual amount of exercise because gyms are closed or are not as easily accessible. Even if the gym is not a part of your weekly routine, you may be moving around less due to staying at home most, if not all, of the day. When the body is less physically active, it may not feel ready to sleep at its usual time. You may also be moving around less due to having fewer social interactions and activities.   A lack of social interactions means you may not be receiving the mental stimulation and meaningful connections that come with them. Lack of mental stimulation and emotional connectivity can lead to difficulty relaxing and quieting your brain when trying to go to bed.

Routines are increasingly hard to follow with ever-changing regulations necessary to meet the novel pandemic's needs. Many of us are getting out of bed later, getting into bed earlier, or not even entirely changing out of our pajamas (even video calls can only see from our waist up)—this disruption to a routine impacts the sleep schedule that is crucial to getting your best sleep. The key is to make sure you are getting at least six to eight hours of sleep per night—six to eight consecutive hours of sleep. Waking up throughout the night, interrupts vital sleep cycles that help your brain restore and recover from the day before.

If you are not getting enough sleep, consider altering your sleep behaviors beginning with these four tips from neuroscience

1. Stay in tune with your body's natural rhythm!

Source: fizkes/iStock

Melatonin, a chemical released from the pineal gland that lies deep inside your brain, helps make you feel relaxed and drowsy and fall asleep. Your pineal gland releases melatonin in its rhythm over a twenty-four-hour period. Melatonin is naturally low in the daytime and rises during the evening. Be aware of your natural drowsiness as you prepare for bed. How many times have you stayed up later than intended, bingeing the rest of a season or answering emails? When you stay up late, you can miss your body’s natural sleep cues and have trouble falling asleep later. The lack of schedule can significantly disrupt your body’s biological signals. If your bedtime routine is almost nonexistent—getting home from work, brushing your teeth, getting into pajamas—you can miss natural sleep cues altogether, and that feeling of sleepiness may never come. Establish a new routine that works and stick to it, so when that melatonin wave comes, all you have to do is jump on!

2. Put away all screens 60 minutes before you go to sleep.

If you are having difficulty falling asleep, the culprit may be your screen time habits before going to bed. Most Americans are spending most of their day in front of a screen. These screens can emit high levels of blue light rays that suppress your pineal gland, affecting melatonin production. Since artificial light throws off your brain’s natural ability to drift off to sleep, you will want to turn off all screens one hour before you slumber—that includes checking even one Tweet or text message! You might want to turn off your notifications altogether, so you are not even tempted to pick up and check your phone.

3. Switch things up with a new bedtime routine.

Many of us are having a hard time pulling themselves away from the computer and stepping away from work or school—the lines between home and work/school life are almost nonexistent today. If you are replying to emails or reading or even engaging in intense conversations, which we often save for right before bed, the cognitive activity can keep you awake. Make sure you have a set end-time for your work or school day, and do not let it linger into your bedtime routine. Instead, switch things up. During the latter part of your evening, do something that helps you relax and is saved just for bedtime. Set yourself up to catch that melatonin wave when it arises and ride it to sleep.

4. Be mindful when waking and going to sleep.

The ultimate cause of sleep problems is the inability to turn off your thinking just before you go to sleep. Many Americans live more solitary lives due to the pandemic and are not having the chance to engage with others, such as getting together with friends and conversing, which helps alleviate mental strain that we often feel right before we go to bed. 

Be mindful of the time when you transition from being awake to asleep. Before you go to bed, slow it down by sitting on the edge of your bed and take time to notice your breathing. When you lie down, continue to pay attention to your breathing until you fade to sleep. If you still have difficulty falling asleep, consider this simple grounding exercise: Slowly think of five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste, and then return your attention to your breathing. When waking up, set yourself up for the day by taking five minutes just before you get out of bed every day to simply breathe, and think about your intentions for the day. A stressful start to the day can end in a sleepless night. Research shows that you have the highest level of stress hormones in your body when you first wake up.

Allow sleep to be the constant you may need in your life. Even if everything in the world is changing daily, allow your sleep schedule to remain the same, your brain will thank you.