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A pandemic-era bedtime story: How to fix your sleep-wake cycle

We’re snoozing longer, sleeping later, waking up tired. The key to a better sleep-wake routine? Rebuild the lost bridges between work and play, weekday and weekend.

wellness Updated: Oct 18, 2020, 11:57 IST
Vanessa Viegas
Vanessa Viegas
Hindustan Times

We know by now that the sense of fatigue that’s permeated life in the pandemic isn’t just physical. It’s the fatigue of a mind that has lost its anchors. In the absence of the elements of variety that punctuated that routine — essentially, the work week and the weekend — the days pass in a sort of vacuum.

You can sleep eight hours or two or none at all, because work is no longer tied to a commute-function-meet-exit routine. There’s fatigue from the lack of stimulation, but not the tiredness of the daily grind. Six months in, that’s affecting the body clock too. You can see the impact most clearly in your sleep patterns — lighter sleep, for fewer hours, ending in a day that starts out less refreshed.

The good news is, there are things you can do to ease the effects of the lack of that routine. The key lies in building bridges that signal to the mind a change of pace, ideally both within the day and at the end of the week.

Start with the most important one — the pre-sleep routine. This change in pace should kick in about four hours before bedtime. First, stop working; leave your workspace; begin to take only essential work-related calls. If you work out at night, this is the time to do it. If you have social calls to make, do that too. About three hours before bedtime, eat your last meal or snack, ideally with gadgets set aside and replaced by real conversation.

“This way you are slowly winding down each system, one by one, before you actually hit the pillow,” says wellness consultant and integrative nutrition health coach, Ishani Vellodi Reddy. “In the final two hours before bedtime, start to relax your mind by beginning to cut out screens and noise.” Replace these with offline activities like reading, writing, doodling.

This will make more of a difference than you might think, because one of the two systems that governs sleep, depends on social cues. The two systems are the homeostatic and the circadian. The homeostatic is a sort of internal monitor, a function of how much sleep you’ve had and when you need more. The circadian, commonly called the body clock, takes its cues from day, night and the movements of the sun. “But the body also needs environmental and social cues to maintain its rhythm,” says Dr Sibasish Dey, head of medical affairs for Asia and Latin America at ResMed, a US-based company that specialises in medical devices for the treatment of sleep disorders.

“For instance, when you wake up at a more-or-less fixed hour, brush your teeth and shower, you immediately start feeling hungry and progress to breakfast. That’s part biology, part habit.” Similarly, the commute home signalled the start of a winding down. You then went out to dinner, met friends, spent time with the kids, read a book. These become signals for the body to start producing melatonin, and preparing for sleep.

“A lot of us are now winding down later in the day; many of my patients complain they’re replying to office email on Saturdays and Sundays too, working late at night, logging out of work and logging back in again, sometimes multiple times,” says psychiatrist Dr Vikas Deshmukh. “This keeps the brain in a sort of permanent state of alertness. Even if you’re good at maintaining good sleep hygiene, this latent stress can disturb how much your sleep and the quality of that sleep.”

Once you’ve set a better pandemic-era pre-sleep routine, work on creating one for when you wake up. “First, gently wake your mind by getting some sunlight and doing some meditation or quiet reflection, instead of going straight for your phone,” says Reddy. “Next, do some slow stretching and breathing to get your circulation going. Then start to get your digestive system up by hydrating. Once you’ve given your body the cues it needs to wake up, you can get started on your day.”

Keep your physical spaces for work and leisure as separate as they can be. “There should be fixed demarcations of time too, wherever possible, too,” says Dr Deshmukh. “If you can keep to relatively fixed blocks of work and non-work time, it will help you gain more structure for the day and the week.”

Create a weekend drill that varies as much as possible from the weekdays. Pick an activity of leisure — a run, a drive, a day of reading or birdwatching, baking or knitting. Keep the chores to a minimum. Give your week a change in pace to build up to again.

Finally, create bridges within the day, by reinstating habits that you may have let go of — such as making the bed in the morning, blow-drying your hair, reading a book or listening to music in the evening, as you would on your commute. “All these buffers help structure your day and night routines better,” says Dr Dey. “When your sleep patterns return to what they were before the pandemic, and that sense of exhaustion eases, that’s when you’ll know you’re getting it right.”

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