What to Do About Sleep Affected by Social Distancing and Pandemic Stress

As many of us have shifted to being at home nearly 24/7, our lives have changed a lot—and that definitely includes our sleeping habits.

You may have noticed certain changes to your own sleep during this time, but what is it about the current circumstances that are impacting rest so much? We were curious, so we chatted with Nancy Rothstein, The Sleep Ambassador, to learn all about the physical and mental shifts affecting our sleep, and how we can use this unique time to our advantage.

Sweety High: What are the biggest changes teens might notice in their sleep patterns during this pandemic?

Nancy Rothstein: For people of all ages, this is an enormous change. The positives are that teens don't have to get up so early. They don't have to commute, make time for the bus, or get to practice, so they have a huge opportunity to see what it feels like to get more sleep, and finally can get a sense of what their natural body rhythm would prefer. After all, teens' circadian rhythm is different from adults'. For them, getting up at 6 a.m. is like getting up at 4 a.m. Now, even if they're schooling online, they have an opportunity to get more sleep.

The negatives are that if they don't have as much of a schedule, they might not be as physical, and movement is paramount to getting good sleep. Even students who weren't on a sports team or working out were walking a fair amount. It's likely they're not generally as active at home. Many people are taking this time to be couch potatoes and hang out.

Shutterstock: Woman with alarm clock in bed can't sleep because of stress

(via Shutterstock)


SH: Why is movement so key to sleep?

NR: Your body needs balance. When you're going to be sedentary at night, you need to move during the day. It's important to be active, whether that's getting outside and walking or running—whatever's allowed and healthy during this time. If you can't leave the house, you should try some kind of online fitness class. There are plenty of sites out there offering digital exercise, from aerobics to yoga. Maybe try something you've never done before.

And if you're not moving, it's likely you're not going to feel as tired at night. You didn't go to sports practice or dance or rehearse for your play, go to five classes, and walk to and from the bus, so you're not going to be as sleepy.


SH: What are some things we can do at home to improve sleep, in spite of these changes?

NR: It's crucial to reserve your bed for sleep. Instead of doing homework in bed, find a table or couch. You want your brain to associate your bed with sleep.

That can be a lifestyle change. If your whole family is in the living room and it's not quiet, and the only place to work is your room, do you have a chair or a desk there? You just don't want to be in bed all the time, because that's not helpful to your sleep.

Sociability is another major change. Texting and communicating with friends is so important to prevent feeling isolated from each other. Find time to do group chats or directly text friends, but put a limit to it. Put your phone away an hour before bed, because it's going to be difficult for the brain to settle down for sleep when it's so stimulated by conversation, or the internet, or TV.

The other thing is nutrition, which can be hard because you don't have as much control about what you're eating right now. It's really easy to snack on stuff that's not so healthy. Be aware of what you eat, and when you open the fridge, ask yourself why you're there and whether you're actually hungry. Eating too close to bedtime can also disrupt sleep. Your body doesn't know whether you want to digest or rest.

And if you drink caffeinated sodas or even coffee, you've got to stop by four in the afternoon at the latest. If you have trouble falling asleep, that should stop at noon. Especially when you're not getting enough physical stimulation, caffeine stays in your body for up to 12 hours.

If your parents have the news on all the time, you have to pull yourself away. If the news is too stimulating and upsetting, maybe you can make a family pact to turn it off, at least until you go to bed, and turn on something fun and happy instead.

Shutterstock: Woman struggling to sleep at night with laptop and cup of coffee tea

(via Shutterstock)


Sweety High: How can we deal with the impact of stress on sleep?

NR: This is a scary time, and there can be anxiety about parents' job prospects, and not knowing when things will get back to normal. You should look at what you can control and do to contribute, and one thing you can do is help around the house to help to take pressure off your parents. You'll find that actually contributing feels a lot better than complaining. Maybe make a chore list for the house. It's also a great time to clean your room, because sleeping in a peaceful environment can be really wonderful for sleep.

Sleep boosts the immune system, while stress negatively impacts it—and we all need to kick our immune systems into gear right now. While stress expresses itself in thought, it also has a physiological component. Stress about everything going on right now can make it really hard to stop the brain from thinking about how upset you are when you're trying to sleep at night. A busy brain might prevent sleep, and since sleep boosts your immune system, it can be a vicious cycle.


SH: What are some of the best ways to de-stress before bed?

NR: Try calming activities. If you don't have a mindfulness or meditation practice, one of the best things you can do is go to what you're grateful for. What's good in your life? It may something as simple as the fact that you have a bed, or that your schooling is now online and that's keeping your busy, or that you have a cell phone.

When you're thinking about what you're grateful for, you're not thinking about the negatives. Close your eyes, lay down and focus on your breath. Close your mouth and focus on breathing in and out through your nose. Focus on a word as you breathe in and out, like "calm" or "peace."


SH: Why are routines so important, and how can we put them in place?

NR: A good night's sleep starts when you wake up, and day should be separate from night. With a lot of people having trouble keeping track of what day it is, you need structure. Make your bed as soon as you get up, and then immediately get dressed. It's too easy to stay in your pajamas all day when you don'have to get dressed, but for that separation, you shouldn't spend the day in the clothes you slept in.

Next, make a to-do list. Maybe you're online schooling from nine to noon, and then studying from three to five. Otherwise, it's all just going to melt together. You're not going to get your homework done, and all you achieved was watching your TV show. It's not about feeling bad if you didn't do it. Instead of watching two more episodes of Friends, do your homework first, and then Friends will be your treat. Even if you are dedicating specific times to TV or texting, it helps you be a little more disciplined. You just need to be realistic about what you need to get done so you're not pressured later because you didn't do it.

If possible, have a consistent wakeup and sleep time (even on weekends) so your circadian clock will operate better.  While it will be harder to eventually go back to school if you're sleeping until nine in the morning, this is a tough time in the world, and if that's working for you right now, honor your body clock. Still, you can't stay in bed until noon every day and then think you're going to sleep easily at night.

After all, this is an opportunity is to pay attention to what your body and brain really need in terms of sleep. When does your body want to go to bed and wake up? How much time does it need? If you don't have to set an alarm, when do you wake up naturally? Give your sleep more attention, and honor it, and recognize the things that help you sleep better so you can keep doing them.

Shutterstock: Woman waking up restfully and happy in bed

(via Shutterstock)


Love sleeping in? Click HERE to find out why the snooze button actually ruins your sleep.