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Stress and sleep

Pandemic-related anxiety may disrupt your sweet dreams.

Article Author: Guest Columnist

Article Date:

a woman having trouble sleeping

Our guest columnist is Emily White, PhD, licensed psychologist and director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at Baptist Behavioral Health.

Can’t sleep? You’re not alone.

Researchers have coined the term “COVID-somnia” to describe sleep struggles during the pandemic, which appear to be on the rise. For many people, this means having trouble falling asleep or waking up several times throughout the night, sometimes unable to return to rest.

Numerous factors can contribute to problems sleeping, but during the pandemic, increased levels of stress and anxiety are likely to blame.

Higher stress levels can make it harder to put the day behind you and wind down for sleep. In fact, many people find once they get into bed and turn off the lights, their thoughts or worries become even louder and harder to control because all the distractions from the day are gone. Falling asleep when your mind is racing can feel impossible.

Luckily, there are several proven strategies to improve sleep. Try these five tips:

1. Avoid the temptation to spend more time in bed. If you need seven hours of sleep to feel rested, make sure that’s how much time you spend in your bed. For example, if you wake up at 6 am for work, a good bedtime for you is probably around 11 pm. It can be tempting to get into bed earlier if you’re not sleeping well, but for most people, increased time in bed can mean a decreased amount of sleep. This also means you should avoid napping or using your bed as a place to work or relax. The bed is for sleep only!

2. Give yourself time to wind down before bed. Our minds don’t work like a light switch; you can’t work right up until bedtime and expect your brain to turn off as soon as your head hits the pillow. Most people need a buffer between the activity of the day and sleep. Try to avoid stressful activities or things that require a lot of thought during the last hour before bedtime. Instead, use this time to prepare for the next day, finish chores around the house, or do some light stretching or meditation.

3. If you’ve been in bed for 30 minutes without falling asleep, your best bet is to get up. This may seem counterintuitive, but the longer you stay in bed “fighting” sleep, the more worked up, frustrated and awake you are likely to become. Get out of bed and do something calm like reading, listening to soft music or a podcast, doing a puzzle or coloring. When you start to feel sleepy, get back into bed. Repeat the process if needed.

4. Try not to focus on the time. When you’re not sleeping well, it’s common to check the clock constantly to see what time it is or how much time you have left to try to sleep. For most people, seeing the time is, well, alarming. It makes you more aware of the fact you’re not sleeping well and can inhibit sleep. You may need to cover your clock or phone or turn it toward the wall to avoid the temptation to peek. Just remember to set an alarm first!

5. Minimize screen time before bed. Between working from home and using technology to stay connected with friends and family, we’re spending many hours a day in front of a screen. The problem is that smartphones, tablets, computer screens and TVs all emit bright, blue light that can interfere with melatonin production and cause us to feel awake. Wearing orange-tinted, blue light-blocking glasses can help reduce the harmful impact of blue light exposure. Many smartphones and tablets also have settings that allow you to change the temperature of the light.

These five strategies are components of cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), a structured and evidence-based approach to combatting problems sleeping. CBT-I is the recommended first-line treatment for adults with insomnia. If you try these techniques and still can’t sleep, you may benefit from individualized CBT-I treatment.

Baptist Behavioral Health’s Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program offers assessment, diagnosis and treatment for a variety of sleep disorders. If you are experiencing sleep problems, schedule a behavioral sleep consultation by calling 904.376.3800.

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