How to improve your sleep schedule as we return to early morning commutes
The way we sleep has changed dramatically since the first lockdown began over a year ago.
Without commutes, our sleep schedules have seen a stark shift, and the pandemic has affected how we sleep as well.
“Lockdown has altered people’s sleep patterns drastically, with many people suffering with insomnia, nightmares and restless sleep,” Şirin Atçeken, psychologist at WeCure tells Yahoo UK.
“There are several reasons for this. The stresses and trauma of the pandemic – from job losses, being on the front line, losses of loved ones and changes in our ‘normal’ lives – has weighed heavily on us, increasing anxiety and stress levels, all of which affect our sleep.
"In fact, it has become common for people to wake up with things weighing heavily on their minds in the middle of the night.”
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Atçeken adds that being shut indoors for extended periods means that we aren’t as active as we would usually be – both physically and mentally – which can also affect our sleep.
“All of these combined create bad sleeping habits that detriment our sleeping quality, and how our body responds to bedtime,” Atçeken adds.
Dubbed ‘coronasomnia’, these sleeping difficulties were studied in an online sleep survey in December 2020, in which half of the 5,525 Canadian participants reported serious sleep problems.
“Three specific issues were identified: those who were sleeping more, those who had changed their sleep schedule – so they were going to bed later and waking up later in the morning – and those who were getting less sleep than before the pandemic,” Dr Deborah Lee of Dr Fox Online Pharmacy says.
“Those who were sleeping more, and those who had later or shorter sleep cycles, were also showing signs of insomnia, stress, anxiety, and depression.
"The study investigators found that sleep difficulties appeared to be mostly affecting women with families and domestic responsibilities, people who were employed, and those suffering from chronic illnesses.”
While the pandemic has resulted in a worse sleep for many, for some their sleep has improved.
Dr Kat Lederle, head of sleep health at Somnia says: “Not having to get up early to commute to work or to go to the gym has allowed them to sleep for longer and be more in sync with their internal body clock.”
These individuals may now too be facing disrupted sleep as lockdowns ease and commutes are once again on the horizon for many.
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With this in mind, how can we get our sleep schedule back to normal now we’re starting to head back to the office?
“It depends on the individual, and how quickly their bodies respond and react to change, and also their routine over lockdown,” Atçeken says. “Those who have stuck to a routine will find it easier to transition than those who haven’t.
"It will be a shock to the system, and the first week or two will be difficult on both your physical and mental health.
“People will feel tired, and anxious, and may experience low moods, and mood swings as the body and brain adjust.
"But it’s important to remember that it’s only temporary, and once your body adjusts to the new routine, you’ll feel a lot better."
Expert tips for adjusting your sleep schedule
Get up at the same time every morning
Yes, this includes weekends too. “This also includes if you fell asleep very late the night before. Your body needs to develop a robust, sleep pattern,” Lee advises.
“You might want to prepare gradually for your return to the office, to help your body clock. For example, you could set your alarm clock and get up 15 to 30 minutes earlier every day the week before you start back in the office.
"This will help because exposing yourself to bright light earlier in the morning will help to naturally re-establish your natural circadian rhythms.”
Stick to a routine
Lederle recommends exercising daily and eating dinner at least four hours before bed, as well as spending time outdoors and opening curtains as soon as you wake up.
“In the morning, get up and open the curtains as soon as the alarm goes off,” she says. “And then spend time outdoors, in the morning and during the day.
"You will need to stick to this routine during the week and the weekend, otherwise your internal body clock will jump back to its natural rhythm/timing.”
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Set a cut-off time for work
Lee advises thinking about your work-life balance, right from the start.
“To switch on in the mornings, you need to switch off properly in the evening, the night before," she says. "Try to agree on a finish time for your working day and make it a rule not to check an email, or do any work-related tasks after this, until the next day.”
Create a ritual of winding down before sleep
Lee says you should also set aside a few hours before bed for a “proper wind-down”.
A pre-bed ritual could include anything from a hot bath or shower, turning off screens and reading.
“Journaling is also a great way to ensure a good night's sleep,” Atçeken says.
“Writing down all of your problems, worries and anxieties, will help get them out of your mind, and will allow you to process them.
"A lot of time we struggle to sleep is because we have things on our mind. This will help us sort our thoughts out and address them."
Think about what's on your plate
Eat well and keep hydrated, suggests Atçeken, as this "will ensure your body functions as well as it can during this transition period".
“Eat [your evening meal] an hour earlier if possible, and try not to eat too many carbs or energy inducing foods," she adds. "Avoid caffeine after 7pm, instead switching to water, until an hour before you go to sleep so you don’t need to go to the toilet in the night. Avoid alcohol and fizzy drinks as well.”
Lee also recommends not drinking alcohol and caffeine for at least six hours before bed.
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No screens before bed
Staying away from your phone is one of the most important things you can do before bed.
“[Screens] are designed to keep you awake and will prevent the brain from deactivating when it needs to, meaning we don’t feel tired,” Atçeken explains.
“Put your phone down, or turn off the TV, 30 minutes before you go to bed, and read or do a puzzle book instead to help to mentally switch off.”
Exercise every day
While Lee doesn’t recommend exercising within two to three hours of bedtime, she does recommend a brisk daytime walk or jog each day.
Lee adds: “Another suggestion is to walk or cycle, rather than take the bus or tube, to get as much bright sunlight as possible. Even though you will be having to get up earlier, you still need to stick to a regular bedtime, to ensure you get the recommended seven hours sleep per night.”
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