Sleeping Well During Social Distancing

Target Audience:  Adults in the general public

Learning Objectives: 

  • Learn why good sleep is important during the pandemic.
  • Learn about the circadian rhythm and its effect on sleep.
  • Learn ways to strengthen the circadian rhythm to make sleep less vulnerable to disruption during self-quarantine and social distancing.

As the coronavirus spreads throughout the United States, Americans have been urged to stay at home to help reduce the spread of the virus.  For some, especially those who have lost work, staying at home can be an extreme hardship.  For others, it’s a bit easier.  But for all of us, almost overnight, there has been a significant change to our daily routine.  This change in routine, combined with stress from the uncertainty of our situation, can lead to poor sleep.  However, in this time when so much feels out of our control, there are things we can do to make our sleep less vulnerable to our new reality.

First, it is good to consider the importance of sleep.  With everything else to worry about, why think about our sleep at a time like this?  Good sleep feels relaxing and peaceful.  But beyond that, sleep influences our immune system.  Getting enough sleep is important since sleep deprivation makes us susceptible to infections.   Lack of sleep can also have a significant effect on mood.  In one study, researchers brought healthy young adults into a laboratory.  For one week, they were only allowed to sleep only five hours a night.  Over the week, these individuals showed increased tension, anxiety, confusion, and changes in mood.  At a time when we are facing stress, sleep can improve our mood and better equip us to handle new challenges. 

To consider ways to improve our sleep, it is helpful to understand one part of our sleep biology: the sleep wake circadian rhythm.  This biological rhythm is roughly a 24-hour rhythm (circadian translates to “about a day”).  It aligns closely with our day and night cycle.  The circadian rhythm regulates the timing of sleep and wakefulness.  Other bodily functions also have a circadian rhythm.  For example, body temperature, certain hormones, and the digestive system also vary on a 24-hour rhythm.  For the best sleep and health in general, we want a strong circadian rhythm.

The circadian rhythm is our internal biological clock, but it is also influenced by our environment.  Daily routine, light exposure, and activity can all affect our sleep quality.  We can make changes in our behavior in these areas to enhance our sleep. 

Here are several suggestions to keep your sleep wake circadian rhythm strong: 

Wake up at a consistent time:  For those who are no longer working or are working at home, it may be tempting to turn off the alarm clock.  However, having a consistent wake-up time can ensure that your sleep wake circadian rhythm remains strong.   As sleep need builds across the day, you will feel sleepy in the evening when your sleep wake circadian rhythm is also dipping.  Going to bed when sleepy (when you feel like you’re about to nod off, as opposed to just having low energy) and maintaining a consistent rise time will help you determine the amount of sleep your body needs, and help establish a consistent bedtime. 

Pay attention to your evening light exposure:  Blue light from your phone and computer screens at night can shift your sleep wake circadian rhythm later.  This can result in difficulty falling asleep.  Use the night shift setting or blue blocker controls on all of your electronic screens in the evening.  Try making the last hour before bed technology-free.  This will also help you avoid any distress before bed from seeing the news. 

Routines can help:  Try to keep regular times for meals and have a regular bedtime routine to help wind down.  If it’s safe, spend some time each afternoon outdoors, and consider taking a walk. 

If you’re not getting enough sleep, consider getting more:  The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that adults get at least seven hours or more of sleep every night.  For those who sleep well but haven’t been getting enough sleep due to a busy lifestyle, staying at home can provide the perfect opportunity to get a little more sleep.  If that is your goal, try to add in more sleep gradually and in small amounts.  Try going to bed a little earlier if you are sleepy, taking care to keep your sleep schedule consistent in the process.  Avoid long (>30 minutes) naps, which can weaken the circadian rhythm.

Self-quarantine and social distancing are new experiences for most of us.  Despite the difficulties we face, there are opportunities to create positive changes in our sleep and health that may remain even after the coronavirus pandemic has come and gone.


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Cathy Loomis, PhD, DBSM
Outreach and Public Education Committee
Society of Behavioral Sleep Medicine