Maybe you lie awake for hours unable to doze off for the night. Or perhaps you fall asleep easily, but then wake up a few hours later, catching a glimpse of the dreaded early-morning hour on your alarm clock. As a recovered insomniac, I’ve found that sleep disturbances have reared their ugly head a few times throughout the pandemic. Blame it on stress, uncertainty or the unrest in the world — my former insomniac tendencies have come back with a vengeance, with midnight wake-ups that keep me up for hours on end.
Minneapolis-based mental health counselor Tanya Komblevitz Schoettler, LPCC, told TODAY that she’s seen a huge increase in clients feeling anxious — about everything from when they’re going to be able to see family and friends again to when they’ll be able to resume their jobs. “When will things be normal again?” is a common question she helps clients tackle. And such a question undoubtedly keeps our minds racing at night, when they should be turning off.
Research shows that the pandemic has exacerbated sleep issues. In fact, some experts even coined the phrase “coronasomnia” to describe COVID-19 related insomnia. Dr. Chris Colwell from the UCLA Laboratory of Circadian and Sleep Medicine, said that an effective way to combat this is to pick one relaxing thing that you can turn to, and be consistent with it.
“Make it a habit. Establishing a habit to relax yourself when you wake up during the night is key,” he said.
So what will that relaxing habit will be for you? I’m sharing a few tactics that have worked for me, plus expert-recommend strategies for calming your mind and easing yourself back into sleep.
5 ways to combat insomnia and get back to sleep:
- Deep breathing saves the night. Remember when your parents told you to count sheep if you couldn’t fall asleep? Well, when I can’t fall back asleep, I count breaths. Nine times out of 10, I don’t remember getting past 50 counts. For the count: breathe in for 1, breathe out for 2, breathe in for 3, and so on. Deep belly breathing relaxes the nervous system and slows down our thoughts. It also signals to the body that it’s OK to relax and gives the mind one thing to focus on: breathing.
- Treat yourself like a baby with child’s pose. This is the one yoga pose that brings me comfort in bed because it feels so calming and soothing. I actually channel the sleep of a baby or infant (I currently visualize how peacefully my baby niece sleeps) while I’m in this pose. Turn onto your stomach and bend your knees so that the knees are open as wide as your hips and your feet are touching. Rest your body over your legs and rest your forehead down on a pillow. Relax the arms by your sides and breathe. In this child’s pose, just like while deep breathing, the nervous system is able to settle and relax. Sometimes I fall asleep in this position, and other times I fall to my side and sleep curled up in the fetal position.
- Keep your phone out of the bedroom. I'm committed to keeping my phone out of my bedroom. It was a difficult habit to master, but helped tremendously with my insomnia. If this is too drastic of a step, start with placing your phone in a bedside drawer when you start to wind down for the night. “Avoid screens at least 30 minutes before bed,” Schoettler said. “That’s a big ask in today’s world where we’re always connected to our devices, but you’ll be much more relaxed if you’re not always being stimulated by the next alert on your phone. Also, the blue light from screens blocks the hormone melatonin that helps to make you sleepy.” A better alternative to checking your phone during those middle of the night wake-ups? Colwell said that many people find that going to the bathroom and drinking some water helps as a reset to get you back to sleep.
- Keep a journal next to your bed. Schoettler said that this works wonders for our mental health (and in turn, your sleep schedule) because if you find yourself ruminating on something instead of sleeping, you can write it down in the journal as a sort of placeholder for that thought. “You’re not avoiding the problem or the task you need to accomplish,” she explained, “you’re just saying ‘I can’t hold this right now because my priority in this moment is sleep and self-care. I’m going to put this in my journal and attend to it when I’m more rested tomorrow.’” Colwell agreed: “If you are up with your head full of ideas and thoughts, writing them down can absolutely help.”
- Count five things you’re grateful for. “Envision the numbers in your head as you count to help you stay more focused and mindful of the process,” Schoettler said, explaining that this directs the brain away from what you’re stressed or worried about without overstimulating your brain. You can even touch your index finger to your thumb for one, then your middle finger to your thumb for the second thing you’re grateful for, and so on, to help bring your ruminating thoughts to a halt and focus on the present moment.