COVID-19 one year later: How our sleep habits have changed

U of A sleep researcher tells us how to finally get some rest

Anne-Marie Aguilar - 18 March 2021

We’ve been working from home for a year. Hunched over on kitchen stools, working around the clock, constantly distracted. How are we feeling? What have we done to our bodies? And what do rehabilitation professionals have to say about it? This story is Part 3 in a series of COVID-19 reflections from the Faculty of Rehabilitation MedicineCheck out Part 1 and Part 2.

My pre-pandemic sleep rituals were pretty basic. I would read a book for a while, adjust my light-blocking sleep mask and hit the pillow. 

These days those old rituals just don’t cut it. For a year now I’ve struggled to fall and stay asleep. Restfulness has been replaced with tossing, turning and clock-checking. Working later each day and studying into the night have become my new normal. Instead of reading a book, I leave Netflix on as I wind down for bed because it makes me feel a little less lonely. 

Working from home has increased strain on my neck, my eyes and my mental health, but I never expected it would also affect my sleep. 

It was reassuring to find out I’m not alone. The past year has wreaked havoc on our sleep to the point that some experts have labeled it “coronasomnia.” We may be following public health guidelines, but that doesn’t mean we’re having healthy sleep.

“So much of sleep is affected by our environment – not just the physical environment, the social environment too,” says Cary Brown, a professor and sleep researcher in the Department of Occupational Therapy in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine

We reached out to Brown for some tips and tools to help us finally get some rest:

It’s too quiet

Remember back in the early days of the pandemic when people were sharing photos of eerily empty streets? It turns out those empty, quiet streets are one of the reasons we aren’t sleeping. “Our bodies have become conditioned to the silence,” says Brown. Living in a quieter world has made us more sensitive to noise. Car alarms, snowblowers and garbage trucks – noises we may have slept through pre-pandemic – are now keeping us awake.

Brown recommends earplugs, a noise machine or a noise app. Since ambient noise comes in different frequencies (pink, brown or white noise), you may have to experiment to find the right frequency for you. Some frequencies can feel stressful while others are relaxing.

Stop hitting snooze

Instead of waking early, dressing and commuting to work, we’re binge-watching, staying up late and sleeping in. None of this is helping better sleep.

“When we teach children to go to bed, we create a routine. We give them a bath, put on their pajamas, brush their teeth,” says Brown. These bedtime “cues” are just as important for adults as they are for kids. “Having a routine is important to trigger your body’s sleep process.”

In fact, Brown’s research has found that people with kids or pets are sleeping a little better than the rest of us because they’ve continued to follow a necessary routine. But before you adopt Fido, try setting your alarm.

“We need to start waking up and going to bed at the same times,” says Brown. “We need to go through the motions, whether that’s showering before bed, getting dressed for work, or changing into sweats when the workday is over."

COVID dreams

If you’re having vivid, memorable dreams more often than you did before the pandemic, you’re not alone. Brown says these “COVID dreams” are a function of our anxious psyches preventing us from sleeping deeply. “The more we worry, the less we’re able to sleep and then we start to even worry about the sleep, so it compounds,” she says. 

Brown recommends stimulating the mind in ways that prevent it from focusing on stressful thoughts. For example, her research team has developed hand self-shiatsu exercises to promote sleep.

Listening to a bedtime story like those available on apps like Calm or Sleep Cove can  stop our minds from producing stress hormones that keep us from falling asleep.

Light up your life

Exposure to sunlight helps our bodies produce the neurochemicals we need to wake up, feel well and support a healthy sleep cycle, says Brown. But sunlight is hard to come by in the underground home office. “Because we're not spending time outside or we're working in our basements, we’re not getting enough natural light.”

To help with the lack of exposure to sunlight, Brown recommends using lightboxes in darker spaces.

Power down

Turning off your device before bed may be the simplest advice on this list, but it’s likely the hardest. Just like the sun, our phones, tablets and laptops create blue light that keeps us awake and prevents us from producing melatonin, the neurochemical that helps us fall asleep. Brown suggests powering down at least one hour before bedtime. 

And if you can’t fall or stay asleep, don’t reach for your phone, she says. Scrolling through social media won’t make you tired, it will just trick your body into thinking it’s time to wake up. 

If you absolutely have to watch one more cat video, Brown recommends wearing BlueBlockGlasses. You might look like something out of Tron, but at least you’ll finally be able to get to sleep.

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