When the government declared a snap lockdown, I threw miscellaneous items into a tub and drove several kilometres south of the city to my family home, hoping the familiarity of the place where one grew up might serve as an antidote to any lockdown blues. Now, there is a stubborn kink in my neck from sleeping on a pillow foreign to this body. I go to bed alert and wake up fatigued. Though apparently, I am not the only one who feels this way.
It is true to say regardless of your bedroom size, family size, workload or lack thereof, if you are a living, breathing person standing on this planet today then you are subject to an environmental sleep disorder¹.
The word ‘insomnia’ was typed into our search engines more in the year twenty-twenty than it has ever been before. Researchers have coined the global spike in reported sleep insufficiency in the wake of the pandemic “Coronasomnia”.
Gee, I’m getting up later and later, Mum yawns and slaps the coffee machine on. The time is nine-thirty. Her pyjamas are flannelette polka dot ones, twisted around her body so I can almost see her bosom. And I’m getting up later than that, Dad says emerging in a three-quarter olive robe, which, I decide in the moment, he could have gone for a larger version of. From the couch, I watch my parent’s disillusioned faces contemplate this day, another one to be spent in home confinement.
The days are slow and sombre, though, some way, unbeknownst to us, evening manages to roll around. We sit up for early dinners planned hours ago over breakfast. Mum tells me how tired she feels despite having done very little today. Dad corroborates.
Over a Zoom lecture this morning, I learnt about the importance of the circadian rhythm.
It is the circadian rhythm that keeps us alert during the day and allows us to feel sleepy at night. The rhythm is dictated by daylight exposure as well as mealtimes, exercise and environmental cues, all of which enable the release of melatonin in the body, a crucial hormone in sleep. Confined mostly inside, this is one reason (among a long list of others) people have been reporting sleep problems in the past twelve months.
The media have donned Melbourne’s fourth lockdown a ‘circuit breaker’, and its length is undefined. After a mediocre show, I say goodnight and walk to my old bedroom noticing the feeling in my body is once again not one of fatigue. It takes me (roughly) thirty minutes to fall out of consciousness. I’m tucked in foetal position, my coiled body reminiscent of a centipede’s. This a new position I have taken up, which I understand speaks to the world out there. The dreams are vivid, distressing. I wake up several times hot and relieved to be in the cold winter of my old bedroom only to fall back right where I left off. Eight hours later, I wake up lethargic, though at the same time restless and recall these contradictory sensations from this time last year.
The content of our dreams is inextricably linked to our emotional wellbeing.
Strange, heavily symbolic dreams enable us to comprehend or overcome traumatic memories or daily anxieties within the safety of one’s bed and the security of one’s subconscious. These differ to nightmares, which behave like cautionary alarms of anxieties we have not yet perceived in day-to-day consciousness. Since the beginning of the pandemic people from all over the world have reported significantly stranger dreams. Dream experts attribute this to the lack of exposure to our normal environments and stimuli. They suggest depriving the psyche of these environments creates a drought of tangible experience and inspiration therefore, overnight, our subconscious delves into hyper-imaginative, deep themes we thought we had left in the past.
A friend complains of feeling simultaneously so restless and utterly exhausted.
It’s like a hunger I can’t curb, he says of his sleep. I get less done too. I tell him I agree, even after eight hours, the sleep hasn’t re energised so much as left me a little less tired than the night before. Sleep insufficiency, which sleep researchers regard as less than seven hours, shares a positive relationship with irritability, concentration battles, poor eating behaviour, anxiety, depression, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. However, sleep quality is not to be defined by the hours we tally. Sleep quality encompasses how long it takes to fall asleep, how many times we wake throughout the course of the night, how long these disruptions persist, the prematurity of our final waking and, finally, the nature of our dreams.
I drive to Port Phillip Bay. Just laying my eyes on the horizon imbues a sense of calm on this body. This evening, people are here just to watch the sunset, they gather in socially distanced groups of threes and fours. There are jars full of pink liquids and men with stubbies and elderly clinging to thermoses. I am listening to a podcast with the great Deborah Levy in which Levy is asked by the host to ask the next guest on the show a question. Deborah thinks this one through slowly, so I can almost hear her flicking through the possibilities in her mind. The sun emerges below the lowest cloud, and this part of the world falls silent. For a full minute, the sun leaving our hemisphere is all anyone can think about. It is a relief. How have you been sleeping? Deborah posits. And an audible laugh escapes me.
Strategies to combat sleep insufficiency
If you’re having trouble sleeping right now, be reassured you are not alone. Evidence-based therapy, CBT-I, proposes several useful strategies to combat sleep insufficiency in the current climate of home confinement.
- Regular night-time and wake-up time schedules; the body will automatically prepare for sleep by consistently bookending your day.
- Exercise – preferably in the daylight!
- Eat dinner earlier rather than later (avoid anything heavily processed before bed).
- If you can, use the bed for sleep and sex only.
- Avoid use of screens or devices in the bedroom. Switch them off, or better yet, leave them outside the bedroom. The unnatural light exposure, interruption of notifications and mental temptation of devices is not conducive to sleep.
- Monitor and limit the amount of time you are exposed to COVID-19 related news.
- Use the lockdown period as an opportunity to get to know your natural circadian preference (e.g. perhaps you are actually an early sleeper/early riser but haven’t had the opportunity to do this until now)
- Use the lockdown to work on your bedroom environment. Consider all your senses. This might mean paying attention to lighting, temperature, scents, textures of sleepwear and cleanliness.
- Take time (though not too much) during daylight hours to think about the current situation rather than letting it culminate on the pillow.
- Talk about stress with those around you, it is likely they will harmonise your feelings or offer useful insights.
I have added three, which I have found to be the most useful to my sleep health in this lockdown:
- Fresh air in my bedroom – everyone, crack a window!
- Stretching in the evening.
- Reading in bed (after teeth brushing)
Sweet Dreams xx