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Tips for health-care workers: How to get better sleep during COVID-19

Sleep

Sleep is commonly disrupted in times of stress, but as health-care workers we know how important it is for our mental health and physical well-being.

Loss of sleep impairs mood greatly and increases irritability. It also impairs attention, which is critical when lapses may lead to errors in critical tasks such as doffing protective gear. Loss of sleep leads to physical symptoms including aching, and compromises the immune system – increasing vulnerability.

Taking the time to sleep means you can better protect yourself and others. Here are ten tips that may help you get the rest you need:

  1. Block off time for sleep. Most adults sleep for about 8 hours. Block this time off for yourself. You will be more resilient.
  2. The body likes routine. Try and set a consistent wake time and work backwards from there for your bedtime. If you have a rough night, don’t sleep in much longer the next day. The following night, you will be tired and fall back into your rhythm. Fighting this can lead to a vicious cycle. Your family should also try and keep their routine consistent. Avoid napping: this can interfere with the ability to return to a normal rhythm.
  3. The body clock is best synchronized by bright light in the morning. If possible, walk or exercise in the morning. Exercise helps sleep, and fight-or-flight hormones naturally rise in the morning as part of normal circadian rhythms.
  4. Avoid electronic screen time in the evening. The stress of the news doesn’t help. The light from our phones and tablets, which is more intense at closer distances, sends a signal to the brain to wake up.
  5. Avoid caffeine beyond the afternoon to prevent sleep interference. If you use caffeine,  3 cups of coffee a day is the most you should have – there is little additional benefit and mostly side-effects with any more. Avoid heavy meals and alcohol before bed.
  6. Keep a dark, quiet, slightly cool, comfortable bedroom environment. Try white noise.
  7. The bedroom is for sleep. If you are having difficulty sleeping because of racing thoughts, imagine a 2-columned list outside the bedroom: in the first column is the problem and in the second is the next step plan. You can’t solve your problems with a list, but a tentative plan helps reduce free-floating anxiety. If thoughts of these issues come to you – let it go and remember the list is outside of the bedroom.
  8. Turn the clock away from the bed. Seeing the time may cause stress and interfere with getting back to sleep. If you are worried about missing your alarm, set two alarms. Do not use the snooze button. Get up when you need to get up.
  9. If you have to do shift work, try and stay on a shift for more days. The body adjusts by one time zone per day. If you are rotating shifts, try making sure they rotate clockwise.
  10. If you are sleepy in the day and have trouble concentrating, stand up. This is a big biological driver of alertness. Do not drive if you are drowsy.

About the author

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Dr. Brian Murray

Dr. Brian Murray is a neurologist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.