Sleep, anxiety and turbulent times – how to maintain sleep quality when times are hard

There’s a lot of stress and uncertainty surrounding the current state of the world. This can have a significant chemical impact on your body and, as a result, heavily influence the quality and quantity of your sleep

Even the most laidback person would be hard pressed not to have felt their pulse racing a little more than usual as a result of the current health crisis. If there’s one thing that leaves us all restless it’s a worrying sense of uncertainty and that feeling that we aren’t quite in control.

Key workers are feeling the pressure to work harder than ever, and the rest of us have to contend with either working remotely or not working at all. What’s more, government guidelines have restricted our outdoor time and social interactions.

As the media (and social media) has helped to highlight, the current situation can have a profound impact on our mental wellbeing. But what does this really mean on a biological level? Let’s take a closer look at the chemical processes behind stress and how they influence sleep quality.


The chemical relationship between anxiety and sleep

Anxiety is a hugely common condition in the UK with 1 in 4 people estimated to suffer from this mental health problem each year.

All too often we confuse “worry” with “anxiety”. While the two are, of course, closely linked, anxiety is a much more dramatic manifestation of any concerns a person is feeling. From emotional symptoms such as a lack of energy and impulsive behaviour to physical symptoms like palpitations and shortness of breath, anxiety can have a huge impact on your life.

At a chemical level, anxiety increases the release of cortisol – the body’s main stress hormone. When released gradually, cortisol plays a useful role in regulating mood, motivation and fear. However, bouts of anxiety cause frequent spikes in cortisol, which can make you feel more stressed and disrupt necessary bodily processes like sleep.

During a normal day cortisol levels rise during the course of the day before ebbing away into the evening as we approach the time to sleep. These levels continue to reduce until 3-4 hours before we wake, and they play an important role in rousing us in the morning. The problem is that during anxious periods when these cortisol levels do not reduce, our entire circadian rhythm – or body clock – is disrupted.

This creates a vicious cycle. The more stressed you feel, the more cortisol is released, the worse you sleep, which in turn makes you feel more stressed. And so on.


How to manage anxiety and improve sleep during lockdown

The unpredictability of the current Coronavirus crisis is likely to be an anxiety trigger for many people – as can concerns over your own health and the health of your loved ones. Having to stay inside more often and experiencing less social interaction can also raise anxiety levels, which ultimately make it feel harder to get a good night’s sleep.

Thankfully, there are some measures you can put in place to improve your sleep habits during this time.


Limit your social media time

Social media can be entertaining and a great way of keeping in touch with people, but it can also exacerbate your worries. Scaremongering and the spreading of false information are both common on social platforms, so try to limit the amount of time you spend scrolling. Even before coronavirus, studies suggested that too much time on social media could make mental health conditions like anxiety more common.

This is even more important in the run up to bedtime. The combination of your phone screen brightness and the bombardment of content can stop you winding down effectively, making it harder to sleep. Try to set yourself a curfew of at least an hour before bed when you put your phone down for the day.


Try to regain control of your worries

When anxiety hits, it can feel like your worries are taking over. Acknowledging your worries is the first step to overcoming them, so make some time each day to write down what’s concerning you. Once this window of time is over, move on and try doing something you enjoy. This can help create the sense that there is a time and a place for your worries, and they don’t need to persist indefinitely.


Get as much sunlight as possible

Sunlight is key to both our happiness and our energy levels, but getting enough sunlight is difficult now that we’re all in lockdown. If you’re lucky enough to have a garden, or yard or a balcony, make the most of it. Exposing yourself to sunlight as soon as possible after waking up can help you feeling more alert and ready for the day ahead. That Vitamin D hit is scientifically shown to benefit you – just take precautions not to get sunburnt in the process!

Make the most of your daily outdoor time, choosing a point in the day when the sun is shining. Even making the effort to open the curtains and windows in your home while you’re stuck inside can help you feel less anxious, more energised and in tune with your natural sleep–wake cycle.


Save your bedroom for sleep

The temptation to spend your lockdown eating, working and texting all from your bed can be strong, but the downsides of this far outweigh any benefits.

Reserving the bedroom for sleeping lets your body know that it’s time to nod off once your head hits the pillow at night, but if you’ve spent all day on your bed too then it becomes more difficult to make this distinction. This goes for pyjamas too – making the effort to get dressed each day helps you keep work and rest separate.


Want to know more about the science of sleep and how to protect your health and wellbeing. Explore the rest of our blog.