Why people are finding sleep elusive

Strategies to work your way back to a good night’s rest

Maybe you have always slept like a baby (the non-colicky kind), but now sleep is evasive. Then there are those of you where irascible border guards night-after-night deny entry to the country of sleep, as written by the Canadian poet Anne Le Dressay in her book Sleep is a Country.

A decline in sleep quality may be directly related to COVID-19. Jon Jon Rivero, occupational therapist and certified trauma practitioner, says, “The disruption of regular consistent routines due to social isolation, working from home, and/or restrictions on outings all cause prolonged stress, leading to lost sleep and fatigue.” 

People are pushed to be productive. “I have to do it better from home, work more hours, deliver more… ” Franki Harrogate, owner of Harrogate Psychological Services urges, “Have some compassion for yourself. If you don’t get everything done while managing to do everything you regularly try to do such as parenting, living, paying bills, trying to not turn into a puddle of goo, you’re still doing your best. Instead of more pressure, try to relax.”

Some people relax while commuting. Deprived of your commute means you may miss drinking in that daily tonic of outside air and natural light which harmonizes circadian rhythms. Rivero says, “The skin receives signals from natural light that tells our brain, ‘Wake up. Start the day.’ ” 

Using tech like Zoom or your phone increases blue light exposure through screens. “The retina doesn’t distinguish between that and natural light. This late night tech exposure then affects melatonin production.” People may also be wise to limit caffeine intake. Caffeine inhibits the secretion of melatonin and serotonin, in turn increasing cortisol. “Too much cortisol puts us in a state of adrenal fatigue,” akin to being in a state of fear.

Sleep signals the body that we’re safe. COVID-19 does not inspire a sense of safety. 

The pandemic creates feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, and fear, which may trigger past trauma. Rivero says, “Pre-existing, dormant, mental health challenges may surface. People may not realize they are dealing with unresolved issues.” 

He continues: “The double whammy of the pandemic and exhaustion further stresses the nervous system. The emergency response takes over, draining energy as the body is trying to fight, flee or freeze (FFF). People with unresolved trauma are always in a FFF response. No one escapes the awareness of how the pandemic has completely and drastically changed our world.” Rivero says, “There is only so much stress our bodies can handle.” 

Goal setting or learning new activities can replace lost routines. If weight loss is or was a goal, it was diabolical to simultaneously lose workouts, job routines, lunch time workout partners, or routine tasks that encouraged intentional movement. Now top that off with sleep challenges. An inability to achieve quality rest increases cortisol levels. 

“Cortisol is the enemy of weight loss.” Dr. Michael Breus, known as the sleep doctor, says in a YouTube video. “When you become sleep deprived, cortisol rises. Your brain dislikes that. The brain says I need serotonin. An easy, instant fix is a Snickers, so we actually crave the things that are bad for us.” 

Sugar may be the quickest way to raise serotonin, but producing enough melatonin at night while you sleep is a much better method. Whatever the cause, if you struggle with sleep, there are some simple hacks. 

Try to wake up with the sun, even if briefly to get natural light to regulate circadian rhythm. Try to exercise, even for five minutes. A series of high knee stepping and/or gentle stretching will activate the major muscle groups circulating oxygenated blood. “Our muscles and brain regulate, telling us it’s time to wake up.” Rivero says, “I recommend this even if you had a crappy sleep. You’ll get back into a routine eventually.”

Rivero offers a few more hacks. “Limit caffeine intake to mornings if possible. Or find your limit [time of day] to restrain from coffee.” 

Breus suggests a media bedtime or “power-down hour with no media, dim the lights, a bath, conversations or meditation,” giving your brain a break from blue light.

Rivero adds, “Two hours before bed, try to have a warm shower or bath followed by cold therapy. Your body temperature has to dip in order to have a quality sleep.”

As an adult, no one tells you it’s time to go to bed. Set up an alarm clock in your bedroom that physically reminds you to go to your bedroom. Make your bedroom space inviting. Once you are consistently well-rested, you may even wake up naturally.


Featured Image: With all the stress of the pandemic, it’s not surprising sleep may be hard to come by. | Pixabay

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