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Parents: If you’re feeling like the stress and worry of living through a pandemic piles up each night, keeping you awake — you’re not alone. We’ve got tips.
For many parents, getting good sleep is already tricky. And the pandemic has only made matters worse. Without school, day care, and camps, many kids are falling asleep later — and later. Parents are working well into the night just to keep up — and starting to wind down much later, too.
And then, there’s the worry. About everything.
You’re up worrying about your loved ones getting sick, your child actually learning the lesson plan (or how they’ll be occupied this summer), and your own work getting done (or having a job in general).
You’re wondering whether it’s OK for your child to return to child care. You’re ruminating about whether your kids’ heads will explode from all the screen time. And you’re awake with your thoughts about whether the world will ever look the same.
According to Judy Ho, PhD, a Los Angeles clinical and forensic neuropsychologist and host of the SuperCharged Life podcast, all these stressors and demands trigger “increased physiological and psychological activation,” which “leads to increased difficulties falling asleep and staying asleep.”
On top of this, not feeling safe can spark our fight-or-flight response, priming us to seek survival above all else, says Ho. Because our mind and body sense danger, our neurotransmitters and hormones may keep us awake. “Sleep is the least adaptive thing to do if you are trying to survive as a species,” she says.
And ironically (in a cruel kind of way), we require even more sleep since stress is physically, mentally, and emotionally draining — as is juggling our roles as parents, caregivers, teachers, and remote workers, says Ana Sokolovic, MS, a psychotherapist and life coach at ParentingPod.com.
Even though it can feel like everything (and everyone) is conspiring against our sleep, there are strategic things you can do to prime yourself for a genuinely restful slumber. Try these small but mighty expert tips.
Schedule worry sessions
Well before bedtime, set a specific time each day — allowing anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes — to acknowledge your worries and take action on concerns you can control, says Annie Miller, LCSW-C, a psychotherapist specializing in treating individuals with insomnia in Washington, D.C.
Scheduling your worry “trains your brain to have a contained time to think about difficult things,” and eventually, your worries will dissipate more easily, Miller says.
During your worry session, fact-check your fears by considering these questions, says Tamar E. Chansky, PhD, a clinical psychologist and director of the Children’s and Adult Center for OCD and Anxiety:
- Do I really think this will happen? Why?
- What do I think is more likely to occur?
- While these issues are important, are they important to think about right now?
- What do I need to be prepared for, or do to prevent these scenarios?
- What am I already doing?
“Always end on an accurate note — reminding ourselves that whatever we are fearing is not what is happening now,” Chansky says.
If your mind starts worrying before or after your scheduled session, gently remind yourself, “This needs to wait until worry time,” and refocus on what you’re currently doing, says Nikki Winchester, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and owner of the Cincinnati Center for DBT. Also, plan an activity afterward to “easily transition out of worrying.”
Have kid-free time during the day
“If bedtime is the first time you are catching your breath all day, it’s going to take a longer time to unwind,” says Chansky. She suggests introducing a block of time — as short as 10 minutes — when your child is safely doing something independently and you can check in with yourself, let your mind wander, look out the window, stretch, or do anything else that feeds your soul.
“Make it clear that you are not to be interrupted during this time,” and make sure it’s separate from your worry session, says Chansky, author of four books, including “Freeing Yourself from Anxiety” and “Freeing Your Child from Anxiety.”
Get some sunlight
Both Ho and Sokolovic encourage parents to aim for 10 to 20 minutes of sunlight in the mornings: Take a walk around your neighborhood, work by a window, or play with your kids in a sun-filled room. Ho explains that sunlight “helps to regulate your circadian rhythm, which is important for sleep.”
Exercise away your nervous energy
Exercise helps you fall asleep faster and improves sleep quality, say the experts at Johns Hopkins Medicine. Blast your favorite music while your kids join you in a dance party, says Chansky. “Dancing discharges adrenaline and puts that excess energy to good use.”
Or chase your kids around the backyard, hop on the trampoline, try a dance class on YouTube, ride your bikes, or engage in other physical activities you enjoy. As a bonus, this might tire your kids out enough to get them to bed on time!
Carve out space to vent
“Sleeping comes more easily when we feel some weight of our feelings is shared, when we are listened to and supported,” says Sokolovic. Express your feelings and complaints inside your journal, during catch-up calls (or texts) with friends, or during virtual sessions with a therapist.
Do one nourishing thing before bed
Make one tiny pleasurable activity part of your nightly routine. According to Chansky, this could be anything from practicing a relaxing yoga stretch to drinking a cup of chamomile tea to reading a poem.
“Put a book on your bed when you’re getting your kids ready for bed — it sets your intention that you’ll be there soon,” she added.
Listen to ‘sleep stories’
Instead of fretting about the future or whether you’ll finally fall asleep, these bedtime stories for adults capture your imagination, helping you to nod off. The Calm app offers a variety of “sleep stories” — the most popular is “Blue Gold” narrated by Stephen Fry. Pray.com features Bible-inspired bedtime stories.
Of course this can also work for your kids, without you having to read that same bedtime story for the 37th night in a row. The Headspace app has meditations designed for kids. Or try Moshi, which offers bedtime stories designed to help kids wind down and to encourage sleep.
Try a visualization
Visualization is another practice for calming your mind. Try this “four doors” exercise, created by Chansky, as you’re lying in bed: Visualize four positive topics you’d like to think about — everything from flowers to happy memories — that represent four different doors. Then walk through each door, using your senses to focus on what’s inside.
Bore yourself (to sleep)
Many of us stay in bed when we can’t sleep, because we think it’ll make us tired. But this is as helpful as sitting at the dinner table waiting to feel hungry, says Winchester.
Instead, if you’re tossing and turning for about 20 minutes, she suggests getting up and engaging in a boring task “with little light” like reading a car manual. When you start feeling tired, go back to bed.
Let sleep stress go
If you’re not getting enough sleep right now, know it’s completely normal. As Ellen Wermter, a board certified family nurse practitioner and Better Sleep Council spokesperson, says, “we have evolved to forego sleep when there is a lion at the mouth of the cave. And right now, there’s a whole pride of lions out there.”
So, pick a few sleep-promoting strategies that resonate with you and try to maintain a flexible mindset. “Do not let anxiety over temporary disrupted sleep become another stressor,” Wermter says. Instead, “focus on rest, and cut yourself some slack.”
Margarita Tartakovsky, MS, is a freelance writer and associate editor at PsychCentral.com. She’s been writing about mental health, psychology, body image, and self-care for over a decade. She lives in Florida with her husband and their daughter. You can learn more at www.margaritatartakovsky.com.