How to Sleep When Normal Sleep Rules No Longer Apply

Typical sleep advice is out the window during the COVID-19 crisis. Here’s how Georgians can tackle some common hurdles.

woman in bed on phone

Medically reviewed in April 2022

Updated on May 21, 2020

If you’re like thousands of other Georgians, good sleep has gone right out the window lately.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are working from home. A lack of daycare is flipping family schedules, pushing parents’ office work off until late evening. And kids’ normal bedtimes? A thing of the past. Setting ourselves up for a good night’s sleep can feel next to impossible at the moment.

But we need slumber, now more than ever, for the sake of our physical and mental health. Here’s how to work around these hurdles and still get a good night’s sleep.

The rule: Your bed is only for sleep or sex
The reality: Your bedroom is now your office
If you’re suddenly working from home, you may have no choice but to set up your office in your bedroom, especially if you live in a small space.

Just make sure your work area is something other than the actual bed, advises Michael Stein, PsyD, a therapist with Anxiety Solutions in Denver, Colorado. Doing other things in bed— whether working or using other electronic devices—can interfere with your sleep. “It trains your brain to be alert and awake in bed,” he explains, “which is not what you want.”

Stein found this to be true for himself: At one point, he played video games while in bed, and consequently had a hard time sleeping. But once he simply moved to a chair in his bedroom to play those games, his normal sleep returned.

It’s also important to find a way to hide your work area or electronics from the view of your bed. That could be putting up a curtain, a dressing screen or simply stashing your work stuff out of sight when office hours are over.

“If you see it right there, you think about it,” says Karl Doghramji, MD, medical director of the Jefferson Sleep Disorders Center at Jefferson University Hospitals in Philadelphia. “If you don’t see it, it’s out of your mind.”

The rule: No screens before bed
The reality: You don’t have daycare and can only work at night
If you find yourself working past bedtime, try blue light filter glasses, says Dr. Doghramji, and put them on two hours before your designated bedtime.

“Blue light filters absorb the blue spectrum, which is the one we think bothers our circadian rhythms,” he says, referring to our body’s responses to light and dark that keep us on the correct day/night cycle. While studies about the effectiveness of blue light glasses have been mixed, it may not hurt to give them a shot. 

Doghramji also suggests starting to reduce the amount of light overall in your environment between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. Lower shades and dim or turn out lights as evening approaches. Diminished levels of light signal your body that it’s time to get ready to rest for the night.

The rule: Get regular outdoor exercise
The reality: Outdoor exercise remains limited for many people

Getting outside for exercise a few times a day, even if it’s just for a walk, “exposes you to light, which is important for your circadian rhythms and sleep,” says Teresa Ward, RN, PhD, professor and chair in child, family and population health nursing at the University of Washington School of Nursing and co-director of the Center for Innovation in Sleep Self-Management in Seattle.

Spending extended time in high-traffic outdoor areas may not be possible right now, as social distancing is still recommended throughout Georgia. For those who are immunocompromised or in a group at high risk for COVID-19 complications—like seniors—going outside to exercise may not feel safe, especially if there are many others doing the same.

But getting any sunlight exposure, especially earlier in the day, helps regulate your circadian rhythms and keep your sleep schedule on track. Open curtains or blinds when you first wake up to let light in or simply stand by your window a few times per day.

To get your heart moving, Ward recommends exercising inside, using free online workouts. “COVID-19 has brought out the creativity in people with respect to exercise,” she says. Just don’t exercise too close to bedtime, as it may keep you awake.

The rule: Make your bedroom as quiet as possible
The reality: There’s a lot more noise than you’re used to
Many households are now more boisterous at night than they were before. Between a lack of daily exercise and disrupted school schedules, kids’ regular bedtimes are pretty much shot all over the state.

If you need to sleep—and your children are old enough to stay awake without supervision—blocking the noise as much as possible is probably your best bet.

Doghramji suggests trying earplugs and/or a white noise machine. Ward recommends trying a fan or playing links to white noise audio tracks found on YouTube. One or a combination of these can help quiet your environment and help you get some sleep.

Don’t forget these sleep basics
If you’ve worked through the issues above, but still find yourself unable to sleep, focus on the other foundations of good sleep hygiene:

  • Limit caffeinated beverages after noon.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol close to bedtime.
  • Keep your room at a cool and comfortable temperature.
  • Make sure your room is dark and all light sources are covered.
  • Take a shower or bath before bed.

Don’t take naps, either. If you must, limit them to 20 to 30 minutes. By restricting sleep during the day, it may be easier to fall asleep at night.

Article sources open article sources

“Sunlight and Sleep.” SleepFoundation.org.
“What is sleep hygiene?” SleepFoundation.org.
JG Lawrenson, CC Hull, LE Downie. “The effect of blue-light blocking spectacle lenses on visual performance, macular health and the sleep-wake cycle: a systematic review of the literature.” Ophthalmic and Physiological Optics. 2017;37(6):644–654.
A Shechter, EW Kim, MP St-Onge, AJ Westwood. “Blocking nocturnal blue light for insomnia: A randomized controlled trial.” Journal of Psychiatric Research. 2018;96:196–202.
K Janků, M Šmotek, E Fárková, J Kopřivová. “Block the light and sleep well: Evening blue light filtration as a part of cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia.” Chronobiology International. 2020;37(2):248–259.
LA Ostrin, KS Abbott, HM Queener. “Attenuation of short wavelengths alters sleep and the ipRGC pupil response.” Ophthalmic and Physiological Optics. 2017; 37: 440– 450.
K Burkhart, JR Phelps. “Amber lenses to block blue light and improve sleep: a randomized trial.” Chronobiology International. 2009;26(8):1602–1612.
“Circadian Rhythms.” NIGMS.NIH.gov. March 4, 2020.
“Behavioral and pharmacologic therapies for chronic insomnia in adults.” UpToDate.com. January 7, 2020.

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