A rude awakening

COVID-19 links to sleep troubles

Dr. Diana McMillan has suggestions for people experiencing trouble sleeping during the pandemic. Supplied photo

If your sleep schedule has suffered due to pandemic-related anxieties, it may comfort you to know that you’re not alone. 

Isolation – whether it be from friends and family, or even from sunlight – can disrupt our bodies’ circadian rhythms that determine our sleep-wake cycle, according to Dr. Diana McMillan, an associate professor at the University of Manitoba’s College of Nursing at Rady Faculty of Health Sciences. She adds that a lack of routine can also offset these rhythms.

“Our sleep-and-wake cycle is really based on a circadian rhythm we’ve helped to entrain,” McMillan says. “The pandemic has really thrown a wrench in all of that.” 

With some workplaces and most post-secondary institutions going virtual, COVID-19 has blurred the lines between work, school and home life for many. For University of Winnipeg students Rie Penner and Sharee Hochman, this abrupt shift in routine has had adverse effects, not only on their productivity, but their sleep as well.

“Thinking and being worried about COVID-19 takes up most of the space in my mind during the day,” Penner, an international development student, says. “When it gets to bedtime, I’m thinking extra hard about what I didn’t get done.” 

Penner says that while she faced difficulties falling asleep before the pandemic, it can now take her up to four hours to fall asleep. For Hochman, a student in her final year in the rhetoric, writing and communications program, the stress of school is coupled with the stress of trying to find a job. 

“My thoughts keep me up about what’s going to happen after graduation this year. Am I going to find a job?” Hochman wonders. 

Though the stressors that come with adapting to life in the time of COVID-19 may be unavoidable, McMillan says there are several ways to increase the likelihood of getting a good night’s rest. Exercise, limiting caffeine and alcohol intake and getting some sun may make it a bit easier to fall asleep. She also suggests abiding by some semblance of a routine. 

“Trying to set a regular schedule or routine not only helps to give a sense of normalcy in this ... time, but it really helps with your circadian rhythm,” she says. 

And while it may be tempting to reach for your cellphone for a late-night doom-scrolling session, McMillan advises against doing so near bedtime. She says that excessive screen time is not only “stress-provoking,” but the “blue light in our screens can suppress melatonin,” a brain chemical that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. Reaching for a book, taking a bath or doing a calming activity before bed may be better if one wishes for a good night’s rest. 

If anything else, McMillan urges people to be kind to themselves and others during these turbulent times. She says being less critical of yourself and extending that to others can bring a sense of calm, both during the day and at bedtime.

Published in Volume 75, Number 09 of The Uniter (November 12, 2020)

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