The rising level of anxiety caused by the coronavirus pandemic is impacting our ability to sleep well more than anything else right now. Even if you don’t feel particularly worried during the day, anxiety can come knocking at night, preventing you from getting to sleep in the evening or in the middle of the night, or triggering disturbing dreams.
While the health and economic crisis receives full coverage in the media, fewer people are talking about how we deal with a stress pandemic. Deepak Chopra, in his quarantine diary, describes it as, “an unmitigated fear, a sense of frustration, anger, resentment, grievances – almost like grief. Nobody is talking about the unmitigated stress and panic, which actually is as dangerous and devastating as the infection itself, if not more”.
SLEEPING WELL DURING COVID-19: SLEEP AND ANXIETY draws on my experience as a teacher of iRest yoga nidra and qualified sleep coach to suggest a few ways to manage your anxiety and help you to sleep better: relaxing the body, welcoming your emotions and dreaming.
It is the third in a series of three articles about how to look after your sleep during Covid-19 confinement. To find out other ways to maintain healthy sleep patterns during this pandemic, you can read my previous articles here – “Living in-line with your circadian rhythm” and “Healthy Habits.”
When it comes to managing anxiety each person has their own preferences and what works for your best friend may not work for you. My recommendation is to choose a few simple techniques to integrate into daily life to keep anxiety at bay so that you can sleep soundly at night. A good night’s sleep is after all one of the best ways to manage anxiety!
1 – Relax the body to manage anxiety
“An anxious mind cannot exist in a relaxed body”
– Dr. Edmund Jacobson
A key principle of yoga nidra is working with (not against) the fact that our physical condition influences our mental state and vice versa. This relationship becomes clear when we look at stress. Tara Swart, MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer explains that stress is “essentially a brain and body chemistry problem” that affects us on many levels, including how we express our emotions and how we feel physically.
One of the easiest things you can do to manage anxiety is to relax the body through exercise, stretching or deep relaxation. Getting some exercise or practicing yoga is a great way to relieve stress – and I fully recommend it. However, I also want to offer guidance on how to purposefully relax the body using body sensing, a technique used in yoga nidra, which is perhaps less obvious for many people.
If you have already practiced yoga nidra (or other forms of mindfulness and meditation) you will have experienced a body scan or body sensing. Body sensing is an effective and simple technique to loosen any tension in the body. It works by directing your awareness to physical sensations in the body systematically so that the mind can focus on them and then let them go.
Various forms of this systematic relaxation have been taught by ancient yogis, from the ancient practice of Shavayatra, to that of Western doctors, including Dr. Herbert Benson, a professor at Harvard Medical School, who coined the term “Relaxation Response”. Research has shown that long-term practice of body sensing induces a generalised effect – the relaxation experienced during the practice starts to be felt during the rest of the day too.
Try this simple body sensing practice to relax the body:
- Find a comfortable position in a quiet place and close your eyes to direct your attention inwards;
- Bring your attention to a single part of the body (e.g. one hand) and notice any sensations that are present;
- Let go of thinking and just sense any heaviness, lightness, warmth, coolness, tingling, throbbing, pulsing or any other sensation;
- Can you focus on each sensation with curiosity and openness, without going into judging, reacting or storytelling?
- Take your time and allow the sensations to unfold;
- When ready, rotate this practice around different parts of the body. For example moving to the other hand, to each arm, your shoulders… and so on;
- Become aware of your whole body as a field of sensation and welcome any physical sensations that arise with openness and curiosity;
- When you are ready, open your eyes.
Try this exercise just for a few minutes to begin with and gradually build up the time. You can also practice body sensing using a recording of a guided yoga nidra.
Another great way to relax your body is via your breath. Your breath responds to your physical and emotional state – it will be quick and shallow in times of stress and slow and deep in times of relaxation. You can also consciously change your breath to induce a physical and emotional state, e.g. alertness or relaxation.
There are many excellent breathing exercises and my personal favourite is simply taking the time several times during the day to listen to the inhale and exhale of your breath. I always recommend starting small and, if you like it, explore new breathing exercises over time.
2 – Welcome your emotions to manage anxiety
Emotions are important messengers concerning your health and well-being. They provide information about external or internal events that may be a concern. For example fear helps you take action in response to a real or potential danger and frustration helps you find a new way forward when your effort is not paying off. In recognising your emotions, you are better able to take corrective action when things are heading in the wrong direction and proactively respond to events.
I find it interesting that emotions are often categorized as “bad” or “good” (e.g. sadness is bad, but joy is good) whereas all emotions should be respected equally. Practicing welcoming your emotions just as they are can be extremely liberating. Denying emotions can be harmful over the long run and by simply recognising them from a safe place, in the moment, we can prevent a build-up of uncomfortable emotions and uncontrollable anxiety.
A good way to start acknowledging your emotions is to take notice, several times during the day, of how you are feeling at that moment. You might like to set an alarm as a reminder to check in with your emotions – say every few hours – and write down whatever comes up for you.
Naming feelings can be difficult. There are thought to be over 34,000 different emotions! Many people struggle to think of more than a handful. American psychologist Dr. Robert Plutchik suggests there are eight primary emotions which serve as the foundation for all others: joy, sadness, acceptance, disgust, fear, anger, surprise and anticipation.
You can use Dr. Robert Plutchik’s wheel of emotions to start to identify and put a name on some of the emotions that you are feeling during the day.
3 – Dream to manage anxiety
Deirdre Leigh Barrett Ph.D, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School’s psychiatry department who is conducting a dream survey, has shown from some early findings that, due to coronavirus, people are remembering more dreams than before and are experiencing more vivid and disturbing dreams.
Why are people dreaming more during the pandemic? Dreaming is a way for us to digest the events and emotions that we have experienced during the day. When our lives are more colourful, our dreams tend to be so too. During sleep – and particularly in REM sleep, when the brain is in a very relaxed state – our brain processes memories and separates the detail of the memory from the “emotional charge”. Think about it: when you recall important memories, you often remember all the details but do not experience the same emotion that you felt when the event took place. Professor Matthew Walker, author of ‘Why We Sleep’, calls this process “overnight therapy”.
We know that the content of dreams is very important for dealing with difficult situations. In one study it was shown that people going through a divorce were much less likely to suffer depression 18 months later if they had reported dreaming of the divorce itself, than those who didn’t recall their dreams or reported dreaming, but about something else.
So, while dreams may be confusing or disturbing, remember that by conjuring up these images at night, your brain accesses and discharges at least part of the anxiety and prevents you from accumulating stress and anxiety over the long term.
If you would like to develop your dream-world and dream recall, you can try keeping a dream diary. Simply write down what you dreamt about the night before and you will gradually start to recall more of your dreams. Don’t worry if you don’t happen to remember any of your dreams – you are in fact still dreaming!
There are many great exercises available to help you manage anxiety for better sleep and these are just a few suggestions. Having some techniques readily available to proactively manage your anxiety in difficult times is a great way to keep your anxiety under control so that you don’t lose important sleep too.
Anxiety and sleep have a bi-directional relationship, so getting a good night’s sleep is actually one of the best ways to reduce anxiety! If you are having problems sleeping because of anxiety, I recommend taking the time to reduce your anxiety and putting into practice good sleep habits at the same time, so that you work on the problem from both angles. Reduce your anxiety to sleep well and sleep well to reduce your anxiety!
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