Is Your Sleep Out of Whack Now That You Are in Quarantine?
What to do if you are no longer sleeping when everyone expects you to.
Posted May 18, 2020
Staying home because of the quarantine gives many of us a bit more freedom around our daily routines. For some people, however, this freedom has translated into undesirable changes to their sleep schedule: they now complain of the inability to fall asleep until very late. If you happen to be one of those people and are wondering what happened to you, read on.
What determines when we sleep?
Humans have an internal “clock” which schedules sleep and wakefulness within the 24-hour day. This natural sleep-wakefulness cycle is close to but not equal to 24 hours. In some people, the cycle is slightly shorter. These people tend to be “morning larks”: they love to wake up early and have trouble staying awake late. In others, the internal clock’s cycle is slightly longer than 24 hours. These people tend to be “night owls.” They like to sleep in and stay up late.
To be synchronized with the 24-hour astronomical day, our internal clock needs daily external signals, called zeitgebers. The zeitgebers are mainly exposure to light and your behavior. Without the zeitgebers, if you are a “night owl” running on a longer-than-24-hour cycle, your biology will keep you up later and later every evening, and it will be tempting to go with that because late evenings are your most alert and productive time.
Where did all those zeitgebers go during the quarantine?
Well, one obvious answer is that you stopped purposefully getting up at the same time. Efforts to keep a steady daily rhythm go a long way to keep us in sync with the astronomical clock.
Another major zeitgeber is exposure to bright light. If you have been staying inside a lot and your house or apartment is not particularly well-lit, your brain might have been missing some of that essential information about when your day is supposed to start and end.
Physical activity is also important to keep us awake during the day and asleep at night. Being confined to your homes might have deprived you of your regular exercise routine, removing yet another cue about what time of the day it is.
Returning to a more socially acceptable sleep schedule
The remedy to the shifted schedule is to give your brain all of those zeitgebers back and be more purposeful about maintaining a regular wake-up and bedtime.
Exposure to bright light (the brighter, the better) first thing in the morning is best to help your brain wake up when you are shifting your schedule. Ideally, you would go outside within the first hour of getting out of bed. However, if you are confined to your house due to strict quarantine rules, you may need to make a bit of extra effort to get enough light into your eyes. Make sure the room you are in is well-lit. If you work at your computer a lot, move your desk close to the window.
Additionally, you need to make your environment darker in the evening. This entails dimming the lights a couple of hours before your desired bedtime and limiting screen exposure late in the evening. This strategy will help your brain and body prepare for sleep in due time.
Observing sleep hygiene is also crucial when you are trying to shift your schedule. Increasing the level of your physical activity can be helpful. Again, a morning walk is ideal. But if you are stuck at home, there are plenty of ways to exercise indoors.
How fast to shift?
If you want to shift your schedule by more than one hour, don’t expect it to happen overnight. Some people think that if they just wake up early one day, it will help them fall asleep earlier on that day. Unfortunately, it does not quite work this way. Remember, for night owls, the time just before bedtime is the most alert time of the day. This alertness driven by your current circadian rhythms may be strong enough to override any excessive sleep need you have accumulated after a short night. Shifting your internal clock takes time and patience, and there are different approaches to that.
One is to wake up 15 minutes earlier every couple of days, and your bedtime will gradually follow the shift. When you reach your desired wake up time, you will need to keep it stable and resist the desire to sleep in. Otherwise, you will risk falling into a late rhythm again.
Another approach goes the opposite way. This strategy can be successful in extreme cases when the person does not fall asleep until 6 or 7 a.m. Here, the idea is to delay your bedtime by two or three hours every day, until you fall into the desired sleep schedule. This strategy will require some days when you sleep during the day—those days will have to be free of any social commitments.
But do you need to shift back at all?
Before you go through the trouble of re-adjusting your sleep to the social norms, ask yourself whether your late schedule is a problem. On the one hand, if you know there will be days when you have to get up early, you are better off pushing your schedule earlier, as keeping a regular rhythm is best for your well-being and health.
On the other hand, going along with your chronotype gives you better quality sleep and greater daytime productivity. So now that you are working from home, this could be your opportunity to finally honor your biology and organize your daily routine respecting your body’s preferences.
Those stories about successful people going for a 5 a.m. run? Forget about them. See, those people are morning larks. It’s their biology. You are not one of them. Just embrace your nature, and it will pay you back by greater life quality.