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July 06, 2020 With uncertainty looming everywhere, we are caught in a vicious cycle – we cannot fall asleep, and if we are able to, it is hard to stay asleep. The lack of sleep itself amplifies anxiety and mood problems the next day, affecting our ability to cope.

Anxiety and depression disrupt our body’s 24-hour cycle of sleep and wakefulness, which is called the circadian rhythm. “Whether the mood problem causes sleep disruption or the disruption is leading to mood problems, the impact is the same – our mental processing is impaired, and we are less able to cope the next day,” says Dr. Paul Verhoeff, Geriatric Psychiatrist at Baycrest.

“We’re anxious as it is, and on top of that, we’re also unable to sleep. Focusing on getting the right amount of sleep is worth the effort to alleviate anxiety and mood problems,” says Dr. Adriana Shnall, Program Director, Baycrest@Home, Clinical Services.

According to the experts at Baycrest, using the following simple techniques, you can get the rest you need to tackle the challenges of physical distancing in the days ahead:

Practice gratitude
When preparing for sleep, carve out time to actively practice gratitude. “Look back at your day and give thanks for everything you have. It may be as simple as thanking God or the cosmos,” says Rabbi Geoffery Haber, Director of Spiritual Care at Baycrest. By practicing gratitude towards the universe and your loved ones, you can find a connection with the world around you, and even if you are physically alone, you feel less socially disconnected.  “People are looking for a way to feel relaxed and connected. That feeling of being disconnected raises anxiety and worry that we are alone,” says Rabbi Haber. He adds, “Knowing that even if you are in isolation, you are grateful to your loved ones will make you feel less alone. Feeling connected will help you relax your mind and fall asleep.”

Breathing exercises or distraction strategies
Dr. Verhoeff advises his clients who are facing sleep difficulties to engage in breathing exercises or mental activities right before bed. Breathing exercises, particularly diaphragmatic breathing, which requires you to count up to four breaths for each inhalation and exhalation, are recommended to patients to prevent themselves from being overwhelmed with stress and worry.

Set a standard bedtime and stick with it
“Try sticking to the same bedtime throughout the week, even on weekends. When you go to bed at different times, you are essentially giving yourself jet lag as your 24-hour cycle is getting disrupted. For example, if your weekend bedtime is always three hours later than your weekday bedtime, you’ll be impacted the same way as if you would be flying from the East Coast to the West Coast every week,” says Dr. Verhoeff.
 
Focus on what you can control
By focusing on what one can control, the anxiety causing your sleep deprivation can be alleviated. An internal locus of control can be attained by focusing on what you can do in the present moment rather than focusing on the external circumstances that prevent you from doing what you would normally do. People with an internal locus of control focus on their personal agency rather than on their external environment.  “In these unpredictable times, that lack of control over so many external forces such as COVID-19 and the many economic changes, causes more anxiety,” says Dr. Shnall. “By taking charge of simple day-to-day activities, you can feel better. Decisions such as limiting your news intake, walking or exercising each day or eating healthier can help you feel more in control of life during such uncertain times. ”

Limit alcohol, cannabis, nicotine and caffeine intake
Limit your alcohol, caffeine, cannabis and nicotine intake. “Although some people believe that alcohol and cannabis help them fall asleep, it actually disrupts your sleep cycles,” says Erica Tatham, graduate student researcher on sleep and memory at Baycrest. “Cutting down on those substances is an easy way to improve the quality of your sleep.”

Cut down your screen time
While it is recommended to stay connected with loved ones by speaking to them on the phone or through video chat, excessive time on social media and other applications on your smartphone or even watching too much television before bed can disrupt your body’s internal clock.

Rabbi Haber says, “In Jewish practice, the Sabbath requires you to take one day away from technology to consciously connect with yourself, recharge and let go of stress. Allocating time away from the screen, especially before you go to bed, can give you a chance to connect with yourself and what’s around you.”

Spend time outdoors and get exercise every day
“We experience light-based cues for wakefulness and sleep. Spending time outside will give your body greater cues for wakefulness, so when it is time to fall asleep, you will be able to rest,” says Tatham. Because we are spending more time indoors, we do not have the markers of day and night that our body is used to. She adds: “Tiring out your body with moderate exercise each day will also help your body relax when it is time to go to bed. The best way to do that is to go for a run or a walk outside every day.”
 
If you’ve been struggling to sleep over the last few months, you are not alone.  Taking the rest you need is an important starting point for improving mental health. By taking simple steps throughout your day, you can get the rest you need to feel better.
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