How the pandemic is affecting our sleep

Many of us are struggling to get a good night’s sleep because of the stress caused by COVID-19.

“COVID-19 is disrupting our daily rhythms. It’s causing people to be isolated and causing lots of stress and anxiety, all of which can affect sleep,” says Dr. Atul Khullar, the medical director at the Northern Alberta Sleep Clinic and staff psychiatrist at the Grey Nuns Community Hospital.

Although we know COVID has an impact on our sleep, Atul says it affects everyone differently.

“With teenagers, the pandemic has been helpful in terms of them being able to sleep more, but their sleep structure has been disrupted. Many parents have been looking after their kids and helping with school on top of their own work schedule, leading to poor quality sleep. It is more stress added to an already busy life,” he says.

While many external factors affect our sleep, Atul says the main issue is that we don’t make sleep a priority in our everyday lives.

“We need to make sleep a priority, and a lot of people haven’t been. We spend a third of our life sleeping, so it should be a priority,” he says.

Lack of sleep can result in fatigue, anxiety and stress. Without treatment, lack of quality sleep can also lead to chronic sleep problems.

“Ten to 15 per cent of people already suffer from insomnia disorder, and COVID can turn people who sleep well into much worse sleepers, which can require clinical attention,” Atul explains.

With a return to school in September announced recently for Albertans, getting back into the routine of school, and possibly the office, can be difficult after months at home when irregular sleep schedules have become the norm. This is why Atul recommends fixing problematic sleep routines or habits as soon as possible.

“A week is reasonable to get your sleep schedule back to normal,” Atul explains. “Getting some regularity and sticking to a structure are good first steps when returning to your normal daily schedule. Also, part-time working from home, part-time at the office can help as well.”

We all know we feel better after a great night’s rest, but there are many reasons why sleeping is vital for our health, both mentally and physically.

“Basically, sleep resets us,” says Atul. “It helps most of our body systems restore themselves, and it has been linked to help prevent things such as anxiety, depression, heart disease and strokes. It’s about resetting our bodies, and if you don’t sleep, you don’t fully reset yourself.”

This is why our mental health is so connected to our sleeping habits. Poor mental health can both affect our sleep and be the reason for poor sleep quality.

“Mental health and sleep are like sister and brother. Just because you don’t sleep well, it doesn’t mean you have a mental health issue, but people with sleep issues should review their mental health because it’s often a big reason why you’re not sleeping,” says Atul. “If you fix your sleep early enough, you are less likely to develop a mental health issue.”

Here are some tips for getting a better night’s sleep.

  • Create a sleep schedule. Go to bed and wake up around the same time every day to regulate your internal clock.
  • Reserve the bed for sleep. Avoid doing work or schoolwork from bed.
  • Avoid bringing a laptop to bed to watch movies and TV shows or to play games. Leave your phone out of the bedroom, if you can.
  • Soak up the sun. Light exposure is crucial to regulating sleep.
  • Avoid long naps and napping late in the day.
  • Stay active with exercise but not too close to bedtime.
  • Do a stress-relieving activity such as meditation or mindfulness.
  • Limit screen time before bed.
  • Eat a healthy diet and try not to eat too close to bedtime.

Although these tips are helpful, Atul says to take it a step further if you are experiencing ongoing sleep problems.

“If you have trouble sleeping, you should get assessed by a professional. See your family doctor or get referred to a sleep clinic. Having someone assess you is a good idea, and it’s better to do it sooner than later if you’re experiencing issues,” he says.

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