Sarah has covered news topics for digital and print publications. She holds a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Nevada.
Stress affects our sleep. Today, our collective stress level has reached a critical mass. In a recent survey, nearly one-third of adults said sometimes they are so stressed about the COVID-19 pandemic that they struggle to make basic decisions.
The stress of COVID-19 permeates every facet of our lives, and it can sometimes feel like it’s too much to handle. It may not be easy to check our stress at the door. Our stress comes home with us, and it begins to affect our relationships with loved ones as well as our ability to sleep.
We may lose sleep, and with that, our resilience to cope with stress. The cycle continues. But, by making sleep a health priority, the home dynamic can change — as can the cycle of stress.
Sleep Foundation asked Dr. Wendy Troxel, clinical psychologist, sleep researcher, and author of “Sharing the Covers: Every Couple’s Guide to Better Sleep,” about the toll this stress is taking on all of us — and what we can do about it.
Dr. Troxel shared techniques we can try tonight that can help strengthen our relationships with others and our sleep.
While moderate amounts of short-term stress may pose a relatively low risk to our health, chronic stress can have a major impact on our bodies and cause insomnia, among other health issues.
When we experience a stressful event, our bodies respond physiologically, in part, by releasing the stress hormone cortisol. We know this as the fight-or-flight response: We either want to fight off the danger or run from it.
While our fight-or-flight response evolved to protect us from survival threats in earlier evolutionary times, our survival instinct remains today.
Today’s stressors are everywhere. COVID-19 is a threat to our survival. Financial hardship threatens our food and shelter. Even troubling news on TV can feel like a threat to our stability and survival. When these stressors trigger our stress response on a daily basis, in addition to other stressors that arise in our work or personal lives, our stress response works overtime.
We want to know we’re safe when we’re trying to go to sleep, so being chronically stressed is “antithetical to the sleep state,” Dr. Troxel said. In other words, our chronic stress is an enemy of our sleep.
First, the onset of the pandemic caused schools to close and many office workers to work remotely. We lost our routines and had to learn new ones. “All those usual benchmarks that set the rhythm of our day were sort of obliterated overnight at the beginning stages of the pandemic,” Dr. Troxel said.
Next, we tried adjusting to living amid a pandemic. Not long after a vaccine gave us a sense of hope, COVID-19 variants emerged. All the while, we may have experienced loss or separation from loved ones, unpredictable financial security, and a 24-hour news cycle reflecting worldwide instability.
“Our brains need to somehow trust that the world is safe to be able to fall into that vulnerable state of sleep,” Dr. Troxel said. The pandemic continued prompting us to adjust our routines, and with that, it also uprooted our sleep.
The inability to sleep despite the opportunity for it, along with daytime impairments caused by such sleep loss, are two main characteristics of insomnia. While some people’s short-term insomnia symptoms may dissipate once stress subsides, others risk developing chronic insomnia. Pandemic-related insomnia has earned its own name: coronasomnia.
While home should be a haven and where sleep happens, it may also be where we sit with our stress. This impacts the home dynamic and relationships with our loved ones.
“Many couples and families have experienced heightened conflict during the pandemic,” Dr. Troxel said. A multitude of reasons for tension and conflict can cause home to feel as unpredictable as the outside world.
Issues that prevent us from getting a good night’s sleep can also be social by nature. When we experience a disconnect or conflict with the people we live with, we may not fall asleep as easily and recharge in necessary ways.
We cannot control the outside world, but achieving better sleep is one way to cope with its stressors. We can use the following techniques in our daily lives to nurture our relationships with others and our sleep.
Dr. Troxel suggests creating a “well of wellness.” This concept is about encouraging people to do small acts for themselves and others that foster a sense of positivity and peace. This reserve of positivity is like a well that we can access when the stress of the day depletes us.
Whether we send a message to a friend, read a book to our children, or hold hands with our partner, these gestures can fill our wells of wellness.
Being able to draw on our wells of wellness during this time is crucial for our overall well-being, and it can also help regulate sleep. We can add to our wells of wellness during our bedtime routines. “A child gets supported, hopefully, by a parent, and partners can do that for each other by encouraging consistent sleep-wake routines,” Dr. Troxel said.
Healthy sleep habits are foundational to getting quality sleep. We must also place a value on sleep itself.
Sleep can become a family value in our households, similar to the importance of family dinners or exercise. Making the value of sleep a non-negotiable aspect of daily life can help get us on track with a healthy sleep pattern. The home dynamic shifts when each person protects and prioritizes their sleep.
“If you sacrifice sleep, your brain, your body, and your behavior will suffer,” Dr. Troxel said. “Always make sleep a non-negotiable priority in your family.”
Dr. Troxel suggests that parents can demonstrate how sleep is a family value by keeping electronics out of the bedroom, maintaining consistent bedtimes, integrating mindfulness practices like reading or meditation into their evening routines, and advocating for healthy school start times.
While we cannot always control the stressors in our daily lives, we can practice behaviors that support our value of sleep. These can help us cope with stress and become more resilient in the face of it.
Dr. Troxel recommends a technique she calls “High, Low, Compliment.” It can take just a few minutes and requires nothing more than you and another person. At the end of the day, take turns sharing the best part of your day, the low point of your day, and a compliment to the other person. This fosters reflection and connection, and it can be a useful wind-down technique before bedtime.
You can apply a similar idea with children before bed, whether that be lying together talking about their days or reading a book. Whether you do this exercise with a child or partner, it fosters connection with loved ones. During difficult times, this type of connection is “one of the primary ways that we derive a sense of safety and security,“ Dr. Troxel said.
“You want to make your bedroom a haven for sleep,” Dr. Troxel said. Consider these actionable steps to optimize your bedroom for better sleep: