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  • The stress of the pandemic and public health restrictions has negatively impacted many people’s mental health.
  • Researchers surveyed over 11,000 people from 40 countries, with most responses coming from the United States, United Kingdom, Portugal, and several other countries.
  • People who spend less time outdoors during COVID-19 restrictions were more likely to a drop in sleep quality, physical activity time, and quality of life.

For many people, stay-at-home orders and other public health restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically altered their daily routines.

This includes how much time they spent outdoors, which a new study suggests may have also impacted their sleep patterns and overall well-being.

“Social restrictions impaired all aspects of well-being, with sleep quality, quality of life, physical activity, and productivity deteriorating and screen time increasing [in the midpoint],” the authors wrote in a paper published September 21, 2021, in the Journal of Sleep Research.

Researchers surveyed over 11,000 people from 40 countries, with most responses coming from the United States, United Kingdom, Portugal, and several other countries.

People answered questions about their daily behaviors and lifestyle both before and during social restrictions, including their work status, sleep times, and use of an alarm clock to wake up.

Researchers found that many people experienced drops in their quality of life, physical activity levels, and productivity during pandemic restrictions. Many also saw increases in their screen time.

In addition, more than 70 percent of people spent less time outside during daylight hours when restrictions were in place. This drop in daylight exposure occurred on both workdays and free days.

People with larger decreases in time spent outdoors during restrictions were more likely to have larger drops in sleep quality, physical activity time, quality of life, and screen-free time.

In contrast, people who slept longer — and those who used their alarm clock less often — were more likely to see improvements in sleep quality and quality of life.

However, not everyone was affected negatively during the restrictions.

“Many [study] participants also reported no changes or even improvements [in well-being],” the researchers wrote. “Notably, more participants reported no changes in [sleep quality] than deterioration or improvements.”

The mental health impact of the restrictions may be partially due to the stress of the pandemic and being asked to stay at home.

However, the researchers said decreased exposure to outdoor daylight and increased screen time could have also affected people’s circadian rhythms, or biological clock.

These are the internal rhythms that regulate the sleep-wake cycle, as well as many other processes in the body.

Disruptions in the circadian rhythms can occur due to jet lag, shift work, and exposure to light from electronic devices at night.

These changes can cause sleep disorders and may also lead to chronic health problems such as depression, diabetes, obesity, and seasonal affective disorder.

Other research has found that regular exposure to natural daylight during the daytime can help keep people’s circadian rhythms in sync with the natural dark-light cycle outside.

This research also suggests that natural daylight exposure could help people sleep better and improve their mental health.

Scientists continue to study the link between daylight exposure and physical and mental health. But for the authors of the new study, the implications are clear.

“Strategies to improve well-being under social restrictions… should actively foster spending more daytime outdoors and keeping good sleep hygiene,” they wrote.

In some areas under stay-at-home orders, exercise was considered an essential activity, which allowed people to get outside during daylight hours. Expanding this during future stay-at-home orders could help minimize the impact of the restrictions.

Getting outside regularly is one of those mental health boosts that is good any time, not just during pandemic restrictions.

There are also other ways to take care of your mental health, especially right now, when many people are dealing with stress related to the pandemic.

Getting a good night’s sleep can go a long way toward improving your overall well-being and your mental health.

This involves more than just going to bed on time. Your daily habits and activities, and even your food choices, can impact your sleep.

To improve your sleep quality, try establishing healthy sleep habits, such as:

  • getting up and going to bed at the same time each day, on both work days and free days
  • setting up a relaxing pre-bed routine
  • not using electronic devices at least 30 minutes before your usual bedtime, as the light from these devices can make it hard to fall asleep for some people
  • exercising regularly and eat a nutritious diet
  • avoiding caffeine or alcohol close to bedtime
  • keeping your bedroom cool, quiet, and dark

A big part of sleep hygiene is figuring out what works for you.

If you regularly have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, or often wake up tired, talk with a sleep specialist or other medical professional.

They can identify underlying physical problems that could be disrupting your sleep, and help you get your sleep back on track.

A growing number of studies have found that it is possible to develop certain aspects of mental well-being through intentional mental training, even during a pandemic.

This includes dimensions of well-being such as awareness, connection, insight, and purpose.

“Well-being is a skill. It’s actually something that you can learn by practicing, just as you can learn other skills that are acquired through practice,” said Richard J. Davidson, PhD, founder of the Center for Healthy Minds and a professor of psychology and psychiatry at University of Wisconsin–Madison.

This doesn’t diminish the need to change the external conditions that affect mental health, he said, including the structural issues in our society that disproportionately impact certain groups.

“But there are things that each one of us could do to improve our well-being,” he said. “I liken it to taking care of our personal mental hygiene.”

Just like brushing our teeth is a simple daily habit that is important for our dental hygiene, Davidson said there are mental exercises that can be practiced each day for a short time to improve our well-being.

This includes mental exercises such as meditation and mindfulness-based practices, as well as other personal practices like journaling and gratitude exercises.

Not everyone, of course, is comfortable with these. But even psychotherapy and creative problem-solving have been shown to improve certain aspects of well-being.

Davidson cautions that these methods are no substitute for professional treatment for a serious mental health condition such as depression or anxiety.

However, he says practicing these kinds of well-being exercises every day can help strengthen your “mental resilience muscle” so it’s ready when you need it.

“We need to engage in this practice regularly so that when we encounter adversity, we have resources built up to help us navigate that adversity with greater facility,” he said.