Here’s Why You Should Maintain Good Sleep Habits During Lockdown, According To An Expert

Plus what you can do to sleep better at night


Megan Flemmit |

As we continue to observe self-isolation during this lockdown period, the days are beginning to blur into one (what day is it today anyway?). Whether you’re deemed an essential worker or not, this period has uprooted all of our daily routines.

We’re either staying up late, spending more time staring at screens or feeling anxious about how the pandemic will play out. And while we’re all just trying to make the best of this situation, the change in our daily routine has a knock on effect on our sleep habits.

Related: 11 Questions About The Coronavirus And Your Mental Health, Answered By A Psychologist

Sleep is essential to our daily functioning. Co-founder and sleep researcher at Sleep Science, Rob Henst, says that quality sleep does more than keep us alert and productive during the day. “Poor and insufficient sleep may lead to weight gain, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression, Alzheimer’s disease and even some forms of cancer,” he says.

Developing poor sleep habits now, may result in what is called ‘conditioned insomnia’ when things turn to normal

Although it has become tempting to disregard a sleep schedule now that our boundaries have blurred allowing us to do what we want, when we want to, Rob advises that it’s best not to disrupt your sleeping habits too much. “Developing poor sleep habits now, may result in what is called ‘conditioned insomnia’ when things turn to normal,” he explains.

“Conditioned insomnia is when a sudden stressor (the corona-crisis in this case) which results in poor sleep and associated poor sleep habits, passes while the developed sleep issues and poor sleep habits stay. This is the most common form of insomnia, and difficult to resolve because it is hard to pinpoint what it was caused by.”

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For this reason he suggests that you continue to practice good sleep habits. This may be difficult if you’re struggling to sleep at night. We asked the PhD candidate questions about all the factors that could be influencing our sleep. Take his advice to improve your sleep during lockdown.

1. During the past few weeks I’ve turned into a night owl. Does it matter when I catch my ZZZs if I’m still getting 8 hours a day?

“There is some variation when it comes to the time of day at which people prefer to hit the sack and get up. If these times stay within an acceptable range and given that the sleep duration is sufficient, the impact is minimal. However, apart from sleep duration, sleep quality is an important aspect of sleep health.

“To be at our best, we need two types of sleep: non-rapid eye movement (NREM), especially the deeper ‘slow wave sleep’; and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. We have much more of these types of sleep when we sleep at night than we do when we sleep in the early evening, late morning or during the day. Sleeping 8 hours during the day is thus not as restorative as sleeping 8 hours at night.

“On a side note, regardless of whether you are, a night owl or early bird, it is always important to keep your bedtime and get-up times as regular as possible.”

2. Will my inconsistent sleep habits have a negative impact on my health?

“If by inconsistent sleep habits you mean irregular sleep times, then the answer is maybe. Sleep time regularity is necessary for your 24-hour body clock, also called the circadian clock, to synchronise with the Earth’s dark-light cycle.

“A disturbed circadian clock cannot anticipate day and night properly which may lead to disturbed sleep and eventually illness. The exact consequence on someone’s health depends on how healthy they are in the first place, and whether they still get sufficient and high-quality sleep.”

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3. My anxious thoughts are keeping me up at night. What can I do to fall asleep?

“Many of us have conditioned ourselves to worry in bed. We are too busy during the day and do not allow ourselves enough time to order our thoughts and worries. The first opportunity we give our self is when our head hits the pillow, but that is exactly the time when we do not want to worry. By allocating between 30 and 60 minutes during the day to sit and let your thoughts flow freely, you can give these negative thoughts a place before you go to bed.

“If this fails, and you are caught in an endless spiral of negative thoughts while you are lying in bed, try to distract yourself by thinking of a happy or emotionally neutral place or event. When I lived in Cape Town, I used to ride a motorbike to work every day. If I find myself fantasising about a negative future, I picture myself going for a ride: I would open the closet, take out my bike suit, wear it, go to the front door, unlock it, greet my dog Odie, walk to the garage where my bike is, and so on. I would be asleep before I even got on my bike.”

4. Now that I’m working in such close proximity to my bed, I’m tempted to take multiple naps a day. Will napping hinder my ability to sleep at night?

“Most likely. In order to sleep well, two things are important: the time of day, and the sleep homeostat, in other words how tired you are. If you nap in the afternoon, you may feel more alert when you wake up, but you will also feel more alert in the evening when you are trying to sleep. The higher your sleep homeostat is (i.e. the more tired you feel), the more slow wave sleep you will get. Also, if you have a strong need to nap during the day, it is time to look at your nighttime sleep duration and quality, as these may not be optimal.”

Related: I’ve Been Working From Home For 11 Years. This Is What I’ve Learnt”

5. I’m having really weird vivid dreams when I sleep. Why is this happening?

“During a typical night, we cycle through different types of sleep: NREM sleep (including slow wave sleep), and REM sleep. In the first half of the night, we have predominantly slow wave sleep, and in the second half we have predominantly REM sleep. While we dream during both types of sleep, dreams are generally more vivid and emotional during REM sleep.

“Because we can now sleep in, or spend more time sleeping otherwise, we tend to get a lot more of this REM sleep. In order for us to remember dreams, we need to wake up during or shortly after a dream. Because at the end of the night, when our sleep homeostat is low, we experience more REM sleep, frequent awakenings, and snoozes, we tend to not only dream more and more vividly, we also tend to remember them more.

“Another contributing factor is that due to the corona-crisis we experience more stress and worries than usual. What goes through our mind during the day tends to set the emotional tone of our dreams. Thus, the weird vivid dreams that some of us experience, may have something to do with the stress and worries associated with these trying times. Note that vivid dreaming can also be a side effect of using certain hypnotic drugs.”

6. Is there anything I can do to stop the dreams from happening?

“We do not understand all of its functions yet, but we think that dreaming is important to our mental health. Research also indicates that we are better at solving problems after we dreamt. Dreaming may thus not be a bad thing. Having said that, if you do not allow yourself to snooze, and jump out of bed the minute you wake up, you are less likely to have another, even more vivid dream. You may also find your dreams to be less vivid if you reflect on your thoughts and emotions before you go to bed: keeping a diary or doing some meditation may help with this. It is no guarantee, but it may be worth a try.”

Related: Use These 4 Mindfulness Apps If You Can’t Get Rid Of Your Anxious Thoughts

7. Do you have any general tips that will improve my quality of sleep?

“I have two tips that may affect your sleep for the better. The first one is to develop a routine and stick to it. Write a schedule which include the time you get up, start work (or household tasks), have breaks, stop work, exercise, relax, and go to bed. Having a routine will allow your body and mind to anticipate sleep and to put all sleep-promoting measures in place.

“The second one is to avoid working in your bedroom. Find a spot in your home, but away from your bedroom, where you can set-up a working station and do all work from that location. Keep the bedroom for relaxing and sleeping (and sex). By doing this, you will condition your brain to associate the bedroom with sleep, and not with work. This will help you to wind down and fall asleep quicker.”

Rob Henst is the Co-founder and sleep researcher at Sleep Science, and a PhD candidate at the University of Cape Town. 

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