Sleeping During a Pandemic

Dr Nicola Barclay, Sleep Scientist at Oxford University offers her advice on banishing anxious thoughts and sleeping soundly during these difficult times. Read the transcript of her conversation with Mammoth Founder, John Tuton, below:

JT: The first question that’s come in is that during the Corona virus pandemic, I’ve been feeling a lot more anxious and not sleeping as well. Have you got any advice?

NB: Absolutely. And we know that even prior to the Corona Virus pandemic, anxiety generally in life is not conducive to good sleep. One of the associations with poor sleep is pre-sleep arousal, pre-sleep worry and anxiety, maybe going to bed, worrying about the day, worrying about the next day and all of that is building up cognitive arousal. But that cognitive arousal feeds into physiological arousal as well, so thoughts and feelings feeding in to how our body reacts to that. So then we see an increase in heart rate.

We see an increase in blood pressure, sweaty palms, you may get, you know, funny feeling in our tummy. And all of those physiological signs are not going to let us get to sleep. And then we get a vicious cycle where that feeds into worry about I’m not getting enough sleep. And, you know, it makes it very difficult. But obviously now we are all in very different environments. Now we’re working from home. We may have lots of worries about loved ones, about our financial situation, about jobs, about children not being at school.

There’s a lot of reasons for us to be anxious right now. And so sleep disruption is a normal response to those everyday stresses and our new everyday stresses. So it’s no surprise that people are finding it difficult to get to sleep more than ever. But there are some really useful things that we can do to try to quieten that worried mind. And one thing that I do myself, I’m a worrier, but I schedule in worry time. So worrying in some sense and purposes is a useful thing for us to be doing.

Our brain is trying to work through problems, trying to problem solve. So we need to worry to some extent. So it’s not problematic. But we just need to schedule it into our day. So have half an hour a day when you dedicate time to those worries, thinking about loved ones, thinking about how you’re going to deal with your job when you eventually return to work or whatever your worries may be, schedule it in and put the day to bed before you get into the bedroom.

So, don’t have any time in your bedroom where you are allowed to worry. Make sure that’s in a separate space. But if you do worry at night, if you wake up in the middle of the night panic and, you know, thinking and anxiety, have a notebook next to your bed and jot down those worries and then put it in a drawer and go back to sleep. So then at least you’re not thinking about it all through the night.

Thinking “oh god I must remember what I thought about now, I must remember in the morning”. Write it down, put it away and then get back to sleep. And if that doesn’t work, then get out of the bedroom and go do something else. Distract your mind and return to the bedroom when you feel sleepy again. So you’ve got worry time you’ve got getting out of the bedroom, but also scheduling in relaxation time in them one to two hours leading up to bedtime and have that relaxation time.

When you’re not checking your e-mails, you’re not checking the news. Don’t watch the 10 o’clock news last thing at night before you go to bed. It’s only going to arouse you even more, make you more worried. So you want to find ways that you’re not exposing yourself to anxiety provoking stimuli in those hours before bed, but that you’re having some time to yourself, whether it be watching your favourite TV show, listening to some music, having a relaxing bath, do all of these things, and then in the middle of the night have some techniques that, you know, will help you, will help distract you if you wake up worrying.

So, we know that there are lots of cognitive techniques that can distract our mind. And that’s what we want to do at night time make our minds think about, you know, boring stuff that it doesn’t have to pay too much attention to. Counting sheep – The age-old tradition of counting sheep is not a bad thing to do. Count sheep in an imaginary field jumping over a fence. You just want to distract your mind from your worries. Breathing techniques and counting and breathing techniques are really good.

There are loads of YouTube videos with excellent breathing techniques to try to slow down your heart rate. Put you in a vegetative state to some extent, a meditation itself can also be really useful, especially in the hours leading up to bedtimes to prepare your mind and prepare your body to sleep.

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Watch the full interview here.