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Sleep during unusual times – it’s affected

We’re in the middle of an unprecedented crisis that has happened without apparent warning and has left us all feeling extremely out of control. Like being on a runaway rollercoaster. It’s no wonder really that the first thing that has been dramatically affected is our sleep. And by that I mean good quality sleep, it doesn’t have to be the recommended full eight hours.

I know that right now my sleep pattern is highly erratic – my mind over-works at night and it takes a concerted effort for me to unwind. This means that I stay up much later than I normally would – and of course this has a knock-on effect as I’m still working, albeit from home, as normal. Not only this, I’m restless in the night and wake much earlier. It doesn’t make for a very healthy sleep pattern.

And I know I’m not alone – friends have reported similar experiences and scary new ones. Frightening incidents such as panic attacks in the night; and one friend has even experienced sleep paralysis despite never having this before.

So what’s really happening?

It’s all down to the science…

But before I explain further, I should re-assure everyone that these unusual symptoms are perfectly normal in times of crisis. Your body is in fact doing exactly what it should be doing – functioning properly! And knowing that just might help you rationalise the thoughts and anxiety you might be having as a result of this (or is it the other way round?).

The COVID-19 outbreak is frightening. The virus has presented us with a mortal threat that many of us have never experienced before. It’s uncontrollable as pandemics are, threatens everyone without prejudice and has completely turned our ‘normal’ life as we know it, upside down.

When we are exposed to danger, our brain springs into action and triggers the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response. The amygdala can be found behind the ear and is a tiny part of our brain but an important one in terms of survival. When a threatening situation is triggered, the amygdala sends messages to your body and gets you ready for one of the afore-mentioned responses.

Physically you’ll notice that your heart-rate increases, your breathing will be affected and your muscles are ready for action – as chemicals such as cortisol and adrenaline flood your body. You’ll also feel super-alert. In the situation we’re currently in, our bodies are on high alert much of the time. Our amygdalas cannot differentiate between an emergency and a stressful situation that has no immediate threat (most of the time).

The flood of chemicals results in heightened stress and anxiety, especially as we’re being advised to stay home and save lives – the exact opposite to what our body really wants to do: run away!

So what can we do to counteract these irrational thoughts?

Breathe. It’s very simple – but so effective. By focusing on your breathing and doing some basic breathing exercises, you can have some control over the physical reactions that the fight or flight response triggers. Breathe slowly in through your nose and out through your mouth for two minutes. And make sure you breathe deeply – from your stomach, not your chest. It can help calm your down. Try it.

Give distraction techniques a go – from laughing (which releases endorphins that counteract the chemicals) to speaking with a trusted friend, who will actively listen and be kind to you. Keeping your hands busy can also help with anxiety too. From gardening to cooking; drawing to knitting; painting or making something. These are all forms of mindfulness, as you focus completely on what you’re doing – to the point of not noticing anything else around you.

Self-care is also hugely important. Relaxing in a bath or taking a shower, exercising, yoga or dancing. Eating healthily. These all contribute to helping your body calm down.

Another technique Dorset Mind recommends is to limit your social media feeds. Get rid of your notifications and news apps and try a digital diet – switch off at least one day a week. If you want to find out about what’s happening in your area, only use trusted sources such as the NHS who aren’t politically motivated. You’ll feel much better, I promise.

And overall, be kind to yourself – don’t fall into bad habits such as self-medicating with drink or alcohol – it can be highly detrimental to your mental health in normal times, let alone crisis.

In terms of sleep – try to go to sleep at a regular time each night. Go to bed with a book or try a meditation app such as Headspace or Calm to clear your thoughts. Make sure your bedroom is well ventilated and welcoming.

And lastly, remember that this will pass. We will get through this together.

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