The coronavirus pandemic and attendant worries are messing with our sleep, so we got experts to tell us how to make it better. 

I was quite excited when we began to work from home at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, thinking I would get extra hours to do the things that I had always wanted to do for myself. Little did I realise how wrong I was.

The lockdown was extended multiple times, the economy was tanking and my mental health was spiralling like it hadn’t in years. The first thing to be affected was my sleep. Given the complete overhaul of my daily life and routine, I was having trouble both falling and staying asleep. Even if I did manage to nod off, I would wake up anxious at the crack of dawn for no reason, tired and groggy, unable to fall back to sleep.

Soon, I realised I was not alone. Conversations with friends revealed that they too were facing the same thing. A friend and colleague who faced severe mental health concerns during the lockdown said that nowadays, she can’t wake up before 11:30 am, even though earlier she would be up much earlier no matter how late she slept. Even if she sleeps on time, her body “just won’t switch on”.

The same concern was echoed by others. So we spoke to experts to find out why sleep matters so much, and why we are struggling to sleep — a function which one of them called a “cornerstone” of mental wellbeing.

“We’re living in the same four walls, if you’re lucky you have five or six, you end up being around the same people, you’re in the same space and you’re dealing with the same people.””

Why are we losing sleep?

The pandemic has thrown our life into a tizzy, and not just in one way. In India, the number of cases are increasing by the day with no end in sight. Apart from the anxieties over health, the state of the economy is worrisome, and many people have lost their jobs or seen their finances being seriously affected. All the experts HuffPost India spoke to said these were key reasons why people were not sleeping well.

Sneha Janaki, a counselling psychologist, said that many of her clients and she personally were facing the same problem. “Most of us who are working from home, our screen time has phenomenally increased. That does have an implication on either getting sleep or feeling rested. These may seem really obvious but there is a sense of underlying panic and anxiety with the pandemic. So that also obviously plays a role. It’s quite existential,” she said.

Many of us are still working from home, which means the way we spend our day has changed completely. Ruchika Kanwal, a clinical psychologist, told HuffPost India that she has seen a disturbance in people’s sleeping patterns because of this. Because of changes in people’s routines and the lack of a commute, people are either waking up late or napping in the afternoon, which is affecting their sleep at night.

Not just a change in schedules, we are also being affected by the loss of hope of things getting better soon. To add to that, being inside home for days together, also plays a role. Tanya Vasunia, a psychologist, said, “It is almost like we’re getting desensitised to the stimulus around us. Which is resulting in our difficulty in motivating ourselves because there is no end in sight… There is nothing new feeding our brains. We’re living in the same four walls, if you’re lucky you have five or six, you end up being around the same people, you’re in the same space and you’re dealing with the same people.”

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Sleep and our mental health

Our minds and bodies heal when we sleep, so the lack of it can affect our mental health in many ways. Sneha Janaki explains, “Sleep is a necessary bodily function for restoration, for rejuvenation. It is helpful for memory consolidation or even just emotional regulation.”

All of this gets affected when a person doesn’t sleep properly. If you thought babies were the only ones to get cranky without sleep, you’re wrong. Lack of sleep affects adults too. Vasunia said that sleep has a “massive impact” on the way we think and the way we see the world.

“The less rest you get, the less you’re able to manage things. You end up being more reactive versus responsive. So things in the environment that you could earlier tolerate, your resilience goes down. You find your temper shorter, you find yourself overthinking, mostly because you know you’re not feeling a 100%,” Vasunia said.

““Like we set the mood for a party, we also need to set the mood for rest,”

How do we improve our sleep?

Our minds and bodies don’t get the same cues as they did before the lockdown — when we came home, took a bath, changed clothes and so on. So the experts said we will need to tell our bodies that it’s time to sleep.

“Like we set the mood for a party, we also need to set the mood for rest,” said Sneha Janaki. And not just at night, but also by watching our habits throughout the day.

These tips should be tailored to your own needs. Remember, this may seem like a lot, but given the stress that all of us are facing, our bodies and minds need this extra care.

Of course, if you have been severely affected by insomnia or sleep disorders then you need to reach out to a doctor.

Here’s what the experts said:

Have a routine

Work from home has brought with it many challenges, and one of them is keeping up with a routine. Some of us are staying up late into the night, some waking up 5 minutes before work or working 10-12 hours instead of the mandated 8. Experts say this will not do. Kanwal said that she suggests her clients to follow some sort of sleep hygiene.”The essence of sleep hygiene is to maintain a set pattern of your sleep cycle. One must go to sleep at the same time and wake up at the same time,” she said.

Often, when we think of a “routine”, we think of a scary one that involves us waking up at the crack of dawn. Sneha Janaki said it doesn’t have to be the “usual cycle” that we had when we were rushing to work at 8 am. “Let’s say you’re waking up at 9 am instead of 11 am or vice-versa, then you just keep that in place for a couple of days, so that your body gets used to it and feels rested. Frequent shifts in timing also throws the rhythm off,” she said.

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Don’t work on your bed

Both Vasunia and Kanwal said that one must avoid working from the bed because it is your place to sleep.
“Another thing to remember is to not use your bed for any other activity other than sleep. Don’t work or eat on your bed because one is bound to associate worry with their bedroom,” said Kanwal.

While all of us may not have the privilege of a separate work space, Vasunia has a solution for that. “If you have no space at home, keep a small table and chair next to your bed or even just keep a chair next to your bed, but do not work on your bed.”

No afternoon naps

This is for those people who nap for an hour in the afternoon and then wonder why you’re not able to sleep at night. Experts said we need to cut down on that. Or not nap at all.

Exercise, but not late in the evening

Working from home means we are leading even more sedentary lives than before. Kanwal pointed out, “Exercising is important for your body to get exhausted”. So this means we need to get some form of a workout in the day.

Both Vasunia and Sneha Janaki added that this must not be done too late in the day as an adrenaline rush from the workout could keep you from falling asleep.

Vasuniya said, “I would prefer you working out and finishing it off before 4 pm. Why? Because when you work out, there is adrenalin that runs through you, and sometimes it takes you time to come down from that adrenaline.”

Watch what you eat and drink in the evening

A cup of coffee or tea can be a source of comfort during stressful times. Many of us, especially during our work hours, guzzle caffeinated drinks. This is also a habit that we need to kick. Vasunia suggested we don’t drink tea or coffee after 3 pm. “It is my golden rule… If you really need something hot in the evening, I would rather you have a green tea or a chamomile tea.”

Not just the beverages we drink, the food that we eat also has an effect on our sleep. This means eating our meals on time and not half an hour before bed. Kanwal said, “Not eating very heavy meals or not eating too late helps.”

Vasunia suggested that we also avoid sugar in the evenings.

“I suggest clients to not keep any clocks and watches in their room since at times looking at the watch constantly and worrying about not getting sleep makes the situation worse.””

Sleep routine or ritual

Apart from taking care of our bodies during the day, all the experts said that one needs to have some sort of sleep routine or ritual at night, to wind down from the rest of the day.

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Sneha Janaki said, “My favourite recommendation is having a sleep ritual and I frequently tell clients that rest is more important than sleep. People are so focused on not being able to sleep, it creates so much anxiety and stress and that’s not the response when they can relax and let go. I also kind of help them focus on doing a winding down.”

This routine or ritual is basically telling your body that you’re nearing the end of the day, and it can now relax.

Here’s what it would include:

*Don’t keep clocks in the room

Kanwal said, “I suggest clients to not keep any clocks and watches in their room since at times looking at the watch constantly and worrying about not getting sleep makes the situation worse.”

*Hot bath, cold room

Both Vasunia and Sneha Janaki suggested taking a warm shower and keeping your room cool to help you sleep.

Vasunia said, “I should put a caveat in here, if you have any sort of physical health problems like heart concerns or if you have dietary restrictions because you’re not eating at night, please be mindful, because it does reduce your blood pressure. What you’re doing is you’re getting your body into hibernation mode — the cold room tells you it’s time to sleep and the hot shower gets your muscles relaxed.”

*Do something sensory

Sneha Janaki said, “Doing things for themselves that are caring for themselves, that are restful, that typically helps.” This could be things as simple as washing or moisturising your face or listening to soothing music.

Vasunia suggested soaking your feet in warm water.

*Do breathing exercises or muscle relaxation

The experts said calming yourself could include breathing exercises and relaxation techniques. “Relaxation techniques like Jacobson Progressive Muscle Relaxation is also something very helpful to calm your body and mind both,” Kanwal said.

*Put away your gadgets

All the experts said it was important to keep away our phones and turn off WhatsApp to help us calm ourselves down, and cut ourselves off from a flow of new information.

If we did use our gadgets, they suggested listening to podcasts, or soothing music.

*Comfortable bed and night clothes

The experts said making our beds nicely and changing bedsheets was important to make us feel comfortable.

Not just that, we need to also be mindful of the clothes we are wearing. Vasunia suggested we wear clean clothes to bed each night because that helps too.

*Putting children to sleep

Vasunia said, “If your children are sleeping with you—and this is for parents who have little ones or don’t have the space and the kids are in the room as well—it’s important that you switch off in a helpful fashion.”

She said that if you’re putting your children to sleep before your own bedtime, don’t lie down with them, only to get up again and finish your day. She suggested that if you have to put them to bed or read to them, do it sitting up.

She said it would also help to have the children make a bed on the floor next to your bed instead of everyone crowding around on the same bed.