By Lynette Dixon, PhD, LPC, NCC
With so much going on in the world right now, many of us are managing more responsibilities than ever before. Additionally, we don’t have access to a lot of the coping strategies that we may have utilized pre-COVID-19: going out to dinner on a Friday night after a long week, meeting up with friends after work for a friendly card game or book club, or going to the gym. This increase in stress can impact us in many ways, one of those being our sleep.
Sleep is vital for healthy functioning. Sleep helps the body to repair both mentally and physically. When we do not sleep well, it makes it more difficult for us to think clearly, focus, and manage stress. When we do not get enough sleep, we also experience physical effects on our metabolism, energy levels, and immune systems. Poor sleep can also exacerbate the symptoms of depression. How can we let go of the increased amount of stress that we are all navigating, so that we can rest more easily?
- Make sure any underlying health conditions have been addressed and are being managed as effectively as possible. Issues like chronic pain can make it much more difficult to get a good night’s rest.
- Keep a consistent sleep schedule. Right now, with many of us working from home or working extra shifts (for example, hospital workers), our sleep schedules may be off. We may be tempted to stay up late because we do not have to spend as much time getting ready or driving into work in the morning. However, this can cause us to experience symptoms similar to the jet lag that one may face when adjusting from one time zone to another. When possible, go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day, even on the weekends.
- Make sure you are getting enough exercise. Exercise can lead to a better night of sleep.
- Create a bedtime routine. Allowing some quiet time before falling asleep. Take a warm bath, read a book, work on a puzzle, drink some decaffeinated herbal tea, or engage in another relaxing activity of your choice.
- Decrease screen time before bed. Studies have shown that screen time prior to bed can interfere with sleep. This includes watching TV and scrolling one’s cell phone.
- Tune out noise Some find it difficult to sleep when it is too quiet or when there are other background noises, for example, the ticking of a clock. Try using earplugs, or play white noise through an app or through an inexpensive white noise machine.
- Utilize the power of scent. Scent is often underutilized but powerful when it comes to forming associations. Scent is tied strongly with memory. Just think back to some of your favorite scents. For example, each time you smell Aqua Velva you might think of your grandfather. We can use scent to create powerful associations within ourselves. Rubbing on lavender-scented lotion each night before bed can be a good way to condition this association with sleep. If done regularly, then that scent can become linked to feeling sleepy. It is important to reserve this scent only for bedtime, or this will not work. Other options are scented linen sprays or essential oil diffusers.
- Practice relaxing. We think of relaxing as natural, but for many of us, it is a skill that we must repeat in order to learn. This could involve meditation, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation. There are many apps such as Calm or Insight Timer that have guided meditations that one can simply play and follow along.
- Don’t be afraid to seek out therapy. Often, those who struggle with anxiety at night also struggle with it during the day. The only difference is that during the day work and other obligations may provide a distraction. At night it is quiet and thoughts can race through our heads on a loop. A therapist can listen and help teach targeted strategies to manage anxiety. This will have benefits that will be felt both during the day and at night when it is time to sleep.
- Writing things down before going to sleep can be a good way to get out the things that we don’t want to forget, allowing relaxation and letting go. Keeping a pad and paper by the bedside can be helpful, or an audio recorder could work as well.
- Practice breathing exercises prior to bed, such as 4-7-8 breathing. Breathing in for a count of 4, holding for 7, and exhaling for a count of 8 helps slow the heart rate and increases oxygen. This can create just the right state of relaxation to help induce sleep.
- Don’t lie in bed awake. If, after lying in bed for 20 minutes, sleep still hasn’t come, get up and try a “sleep re-do.” Keep the lights dim and do something relaxing. Then in another 15 minutes, follow your sleep routine again.
If you’re up at night and unable to let go of the stress, know that you’re not alone. Many are facing the same thing right now. Give these strategies a try, and if they don’t work, reach out to your physician, to a sleep specialist, and/or to a qualified therapist who can help you get to the root of what may be making it so difficult to catch those Zzz’s. We have therapists available at West County Psychological Associates, are taking new clients and offering telehealth sessions.
Lynette Dixon, PhD, LPC, NCC, CRAADC serves families, couples, and individuals of all ages on a variety of issues including depression, anxiety, grief and loss, marital concerns, addiction, substance abuse, co-occurring disorders, PTSD, and other trauma-related disorders. Lynette is also a Certified Reciprocal Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor, and she enjoys working with clients to overcome addiction. Lynette uses a variety of treatment approaches, including play therapy when working with young children.