Before I started working from home full-time in early March, I had a routine. During the week, I went to sleep every night between 10 and 10:30 p.m., and woke up every morning between 5:30 and 6 a.m. I’d have coffee, exercise, shower, and then start working. Now, no two days look the same. Some nights, I pass out at 9 p.m., and others I can’t get to sleep until 3 a.m. In the mornings, I’m either wide awake at 5 a.m., or I can barely manage to rouse myself in time to sign on for my job, and I spend the rest of the day in a haze. The membrane between day and night, wakefulness and sleep, seems to have dissolved for me, further adding to the confusion and anxiety of living through a global health crisis.
I’m not alone, either. Over the past several weeks, millions of Americans have started working from home in an effort to practice social distancing, and prevent the spread of the coronavirus. And for many, the experience has profoundly disrupted their sleep. “Sleep? What’s that?” said one friend over the phone. “I just read for hours, and I can’t get to sleep. My brain won’t turn off,” said another.
Dr. Alcibiades J. Rodriguez, the director of the sleep center at NYU’s Langone Health, says that over the past month, more and more patients have been telling him that they’re having trouble sleeping.
Most people, Dr. Rodriguez explains, are not used to working from home. Even those who were used to working remotely are now facing challenges they didn’t before: partners and children are around all day instead of at work or school; they’re not able to get outside in the same way they were before; they’re stressed about the news, or about the health of their loved ones. Managing the stress of this new reality might lead people to cope by staying up later than usual watching Netflix, or snacking at odd hours. These responses are normal, but they’ll wreak havoc on your circadian rhythm, the internal process that regulates each person’s natural sleep-wake cycle.
When start to tell him I’ve been sleeping in later most mornings to compensate for my late nights, he’s stern. “Don’t do it,” he says. “Because in a week, you’ll be used to that pattern. Just get up at 5:30 again. Don’t go to sleep in the afternoon. Don’t watch the nighttime news because that’s very upsetting. Try to exercise in the morning sunlight, because that gives you energy.”
Sunlight is the No. 1 factor that affects our circadian rhythm, Dr. Rodriguez explains. It’s what lets our body know when it’s time to wake up and when it’s time to go to sleep, so being inside all the time can disrupt these signals. Food also lets your body know where it is in the sleep-wake cycle, so if you’ve been snacking more than usual before bed, that could be one of the reasons you’re having a harder time getting to sleep.
Above all, Dr. Rodriguez recommends holding on to whatever normalcy you can. Try maintaining a regular sleep schedule, limiting your alcohol intake, exercising when you can, eating at the same times every day, and not watching or reading the news at night if it upsets you. Even showering at the same time as you used to can help your body get back on track. If you live with a partner or children, try to get them on the same schedule, too, so you don’t have to try to manage different people’s sleeping and eating cycles. And if you’re really struggling with anxiety that’s affecting your sleep, consider talking to a professional.
“Control what you can,” says Dr. Rodriguez. “You cannot control the virus at the moment. You can’t control when you stay home. You cannot control the news. You cannot control the economy. Those are things you cannot control.” But you can probably control when you go to sleep and when you wake up.
“You’re not going to be perfect,” he adds. “I’m not perfect, honestly. But in this craziness, try to keep some type of normalcy. That’s the take-home message.”