Why You're Sleeping a Lot More (or Less) Right Now

A therapist and functional medicine doctor weigh in. 

white-bed-comforter

While the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly impacted the way we live, it seems to have also affected the way we sleep. Whether you're having trouble sleeping, doze for bonus hours every day or bounce between the two states, you’re far from alone in feeling like your sleep habits have gone through a shift.

“Sleep disruption is a common symptom of stress, and during a time like this, we’re all under some low-grade, chronic stress,” says Frank Lipman, M.D., Chief Medical Officer at THE WELL. “When you’re dealing with stress and anxiety, your body is releasing the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, in the same way as if you were doing some sort of strenuous physical activity," adds Annie Miller, LCSW, a psychotherapist specializing in cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia. So even if you aren’t, say, exercising a lot, your body may feel overstimulated or crave rest just from the mental drain.

For some, this may result in insomnia; for others, it’ll manifest as an insatiable need for sleep, Miller explains. (Stress affects us all differently, and there’s no way to tell how or why some of us react one way or another, Lipman notes.)

Your body is releasing stress hormones in the same way as if you were doing some sort of strenuous physical activity.

One thing is for sure, though: There are some factors that are unique to this strange time of quarantine that can impact your sleep patterns.

First, since many of us are spending (much) more time inside, we’re getting less exposure to daylight. This can throw off our circadian rhythm, our "internal clock" that controls when we fall asleep and wake up.

We’re also dealing with a lack of routine and structure. (Raise your hand if you've lost track of which day it is.) “Things are blending together, and we are lacking anchors for our days, whether it’s our commute, a morning yoga class or happy hour with friends,” Miller explains. “When we don’t have access to the things we’re typically interested in, we can feel less motivated and more fatigued in general.” 

Finally, some good news: This time is actually an excellent opportunity to work on improving our sleep, as Miller points out. “We don’t have our usual responsibilities, like early-morning dentist appointments or social gatherings at night, so we can devote that extra time to working on our sleep patterns.”

Here’s how to readjust to a healthier schedule, whether you're getting too much shuteye — or not enough.  

If you’re having trouble sleeping:

Wake up at the same time every day

This is the number-one tip that both Miller and Lipman suggest. Your wake-up time doesn’t necessarily have to be really early — it just has to be consistent, Miller notes. That means even if you fall asleep at 2am, you should still wake up at 7am or 8am. This will help you feel more tired at night, eventually resetting your sleep schedule. 

Don't catch up on sleep

It’s tempting to sleep in on weekends — or even on weekdays now those of use who are working from home no longer have a typical work day. But sleeping in can lead to what’s called “social jet lag,” says Miller, which makes your body feel like you’re in a different timezone. Keep waking up at your usual time to help your body build up its natural “sleep drive.”  

Soothe your nervous system

If you find you’re being kept awake by racing thoughts at night, experiment with relaxing routines before bed, Lipman suggests. Listen to soothing music, a guided meditation, nature sounds or even a “sleep story” that you can find on apps like Calm or Headspace. You can also try journaling your thoughts before bed, so you can figuratively “put them away” before going to sleep so they’re not in your head, he says. Another tip: Harness the power of your senses to sleep better. 

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Remembering more dreams than usual? This might be because you're sleeping later in the mornings, which is when most of our dream-heavy REM sleep occurs, Miller says.

If you're sleeping more than usual:

Wake up at the same time every day

The same number-one tip as above applies here. Lipman is a big fan of going to bed a little earlier during this time, and then waking up earlier, so you can get more of the beneficial morning light, he notes. 

Give yourself some grace

As noted above, it's normal for our sleep patterns to change during a stressful time. Your body might just need an hour or two longer in bed than you’re used to! And that's not a bad thing: Sleep is critical for our mental and physical health, as well as our immunity. It also provides the opportunity for our bodies to process emotion, information and even solve problems — all of which are essential for our health these days.  

Get energized first thing

If you feel groggy in the mornings, try a couple new morning routines to see what helps wake you up. One tip from Miller is to go outside to get some direct sunlight, which helps set your circadian rhythm. If you can't make it outdoors, just opening the curtains and sitting by the window can help. A cup of coffee goes well with this routine, too!  

Doing some light exercise in the morning can get you going. It doesn't have to be a full-on sweat session, just a brisk walk, some light stretches or a quick energizing yoga routine can work.


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