How Does Working From Home Affect Your Sleep?

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of staring. Staring at my phone (checking for news updates or Facetiming my sister), staring at my laptop (trying to get work done) or just staring outside my window (with lots of dramatic sighing).

I’ve also been staring at my clock at night…watching the minutes go by…

Having said that, you know what I haven’t been doing a lot of lately? Sleeping.

Like many of you, working from home has flipped my schedule upside-down. Late nights, sleeping in, naps...everything I shouldn’t do, it’s happening.

If you’re having a mild feeling of déjà vu, it’s probably because I’ve talked about sleep before on this blog. While some of the information on this post may be redundant, I’m sure it can help those of us who are having trouble with our sleep schedules while working from home during a global pandemic.

This post will address the possible reasons why we’re having so much trouble falling asleep lately. I’ll also talk about why sleep is important and share some relevant tips on how you can sleep better during a pandemic.

Why Can’t I Sleep?

Over past few weeks, our lives have changed dramatically. In one way or another, some aspect of our daily routine has been flipped upside down.

Here is the simple answer to why you can’t sleep well anymore:

Your daily routine has changed. Even if you’re doing the same things you did before, your days are now full of more anxiety and uncertainty.

But if you’re interested in a more in-depth answer, ask yourself this:

  • Why exactly are we having so much trouble with our sleep these days?
  • What is it about a global pandemic that causes such sleeplessness, especially when we need to rest now more than ever?

Blame It On Evolution

It turns out that there’s an evolutionary explanation for our current sleep troubles.

Did you know that insomnia is related to evolutionary behaviours concerning fear and survival. Fear is a natural emotion and elicits certain behaviours that keep us alive in dangerous situations.

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Wayback Playback :  hunter-gatherers in the Paleolithic area needed to have an effective fear response in order to survive their natural elements, which included threats from wild animals. By activating their fight-or-flight system, they effectively channeled their bodily resources to fight or flee a threatening situation.

When it comes to sleep, multiple adults from a group would stay awake during the night to keep watch and ensure the rest were safe. This hypervigilance and acute insomnia allowed for increased survival because obviously, it’s a lot easier to deal with a mountain lion if you’re actually awake.   

A fear response might be useful in this kind of situation, but sometimes it can be detrimental. Evolutionary mismatch theory suggests that behaviors that were once adaptive can become maladaptive in our current environment.

Insomnia in our world is one example of this kind of mismatched behaviour.

We’re not staying awake at night because we think a mountain lion will attack us. But we do still worry about more indirect and abstract threats – fear of losing a job, health issues and currently the uncertainty of COVID-19.

Our brain and body register these as threats to our survival and keep us awake to deal with them…even if that’s not the best solution.

Besides the woes of evolution, what are some other reasons we're having so much sleep trouble, lately?

Stress, Anxiety & Low Mood

Let’s be real for a second: no matter what situation you’re in right now, this has been a severely stressful time for all of us.

Perhaps you’ve started working from home, and you’re trying to get used to merging your workspace with your home space.

Maybe you’ve just lost your job or your business has been forced to shut down temporarily, leading to a great deal of financial anxiety and uncertainty.

If you’re an essential worker, you’re putting yourself at risk so the rest of us can be safe. Naturally, an essential worker will also feel scared for their safety and for those they live with.

All of us are worrying. About ourselves, about our loved ones, about those most vulnerable in our society. We might worry about our futures and what’s going to happen to our livelihoods once everything goes back to normal…whenever that may be.

This increased amount of stress and anxiety can also cause us to experience a low mood.

Job troubles can lead to feelings of frustration and self-blame. Not being able to see our family and friends can also lead to distance in our social circles thereby impacting our mental health.

Taken together, these experiences are the perfect recipe for a terrible night’s sleep.

In fact, stress, anxiety, and depression can be related to sleep in a bidirectional manner.

Sleep problems can be a symptom of stress, anxiety, and depression. Vice versa, not sleeping well can also cause you to feel stressed, anxious or depressed.

the connection between sleep and mental health

Why Do We Need Sleep?

We all know that sleep is crucial for our physical health.

Problems with sleep can lead to a host of ailments, including coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and diabetes. Besides the physical repercussions, sleep is also closely related to our mental health and our emotional well-being.

Sleep & Our Mental Health

Like I mentioned before, sleep and mental well-being have a bidirectional relationship. Sleep problems are often the hallmark for many mental illnesses, including anxiety and depression.

Additionally, not sleeping well over a long period of time increases the risk of someone developing depression. Sometimes, sleep problems may show up before someone actually develops a depressive disorder.

As we all know, anxiety can also affect your sleep. Feeling anxious and on-edge may prevent you from sleeping on time and decrease the quality of your sleep. In fact, poor sleep can cause certain brain regions responsible for anxiety to increase in activation.

If you already experience anxiety on a regular basis, not sleeping well can make your anxiety a lot worse. If you want to learn more details on the relationship between sleep and anxiety, read this post.

Sleep and Our Immune System

It may surprise you to learn that sleep is also closely related with the function of our immune system. In other words, how much you sleep can affect how well your body is able to protect itself against threats to your health.

Our body’s immune cells protect us from getting sick by fighting against different pathogens, including viruses and bacteria. Research has shown that immune cells function more effectively when a person gets good sleep on a regular basis. However, if you sleep poorly, this can actually interfere with how well your immune cells function. This is in part due to an increase in stress hormone levels in your body.

If you’re still not convinced about why sleep is so important for your immune system, get this:

Research has found that getting fewer hours of sleep can interfere with vaccine immune response.

What does this mean? Basically, if you’re not getting enough sleep on a regular basis, your body won’t be able to develop a sufficient antibody response when you get a vaccine for a particular disease.

This means, even though you received the vaccine, you won't be adequately protected.

PSA: Get your vaccines and get some sleep!

How Can I Sleep Better?

Here are some tips that can help you develop sleep hygiene while working from home.

1. Plan out a schedule for the day

Create a schedule for your day by making a list of if things you’d like to accomplish. I suggest keeping it to 3-5 things.

Set aside times for certain tasks and activities, if that helps.

If you’re working, plan your day around those hours. Remember to be flexible and patient with yourself by setting small, reasonable goals.

Similarly, plan out your bedtime and wake time to fit in with your schedule, making sure to actually give yourself enough time to sleep!

2. Keep naps to a minimum

I get it, you’re at home all day and naps are tempting. What else is there to do? For some people, naps can be energizing and can boost your productivity.

If you need a nap, keep it to only once per day and between 20-30 minutes. Longer and more frequent naps will make you groggy and interfere with your nighttime sleep.

3. Get enough natural light

Because of rules surrounding self-isolation, our exposure to sunlight has been dramatically reduced.

We need natural light to sync our internal clock a.k.a our circadian rhythms. This is what helps us wake up when it’s light outside and sleep when it’s dark. If it’s safe to do so, take a walk outside during the day to get adequate sunlight or sit in the balcony/backyard.

Dont forget to open the curtains during the day to let as much natural light in.

4. Avoid coffee and eating big meals before bed

Look, I get it. I tried that dalgona coffee trend too, and it’s easy and really good. But none of us need to have it every day, and especially not in the evenings. The same goes for my chai lovers.

Here’s your friendly reminder that coffee will interfere with your sleep. I admit this reminder is more for me than you.

Also, while a light snack an hour before bed is ok, heavy, spicy meals late in the evening are not a good idea. Yet another reminder more for me.

Am I the only one that loves biryani before bedtime?

5. Stay away from the news right before bed

While it’s good to stay informed and up-to-date, let’s be honest – the news is pretty anxiety provoking for everyone right now.

Instead of reading the news right before bed, try to set aside an hour in the morning or late afternoon to get your daily dose. Reading the news before you sleep will only interfere with your mind’s ability to calm down and rest.

6. Establish a wind-down routine

An hour before bedtime, start winding down and getting ready for bed.

You can read a book, pray, meditate or take a hot shower.

Whichever activity you do, make sure it’s enjoyable as you slow down for the day, both physically and mentally, preparing your body for sleep.

7. Turn off screens before bed

This one is a no brainer, yet SO hard to do!

During your wind-down routine, it’s a good idea to stay away from screens. As tempting as it may be to doze off while scrolling, the blue light from your phone and other electronics can delay your natural sleep-wake cycles and make it more difficult to fall asleep.

8. Try meditation and deep breathing

Now, more than ever, are we in need of some good, solid deep breaths. Make it a habit to just take a few prolonged, deep breaths as you settle into your bed at night. Clear your mind of the day’s anxieties (I know, easier said than done).

Deep belly breathing is a big part of psychotherapy work. We created an easy guide to help you incorporate breathing into your day to day routine. The best part- it can be done anywhere and takes no more than 1-2 minutes!

To learn other strategies to help relax your body, check out our guide to progressive muscle relaxation as well.

If you’re up for more structured meditations, try apps like Headspace or Calm who are offering free meditations right now.

9. Use your bed as a place for sleep only

Working from home may tempt you to be as comfortable as possible, and your bed may seem like the most inviting place.

However, it’s best to keep your bed only as a place for sleep so that your brain associates it with rest, making it easier to fall asleep at night.

10. Keep a consistent wake and sleep time

Try your best to sleep and wake up at the same time everyday. Of course, weekends can be an exception but try to stick to 80-20 rule.

The 80-20 rule suggests for us to sleep and wake up at consistent times similar to 80% of the workweek. The rest of the time, you can be more little flexible.

Let's Wrap it Up

Over the past month, we’ve all been experiencing some pretty big changes in our daily schedule which have caused our sleeping habits to suffer greatly.

Staying awake at night has been related to maladaptive evolutionary behaviours where we experience insomnia because our body is just too anxious and on-edge to sleep. Sleep is incredibly important in maintaining our mental health, and it affects our body’s ability to fight against illnesses and how well vaccines work for us.

What have you done to maintain your sleep schedule over the past few weeks?

Let us know by leaving a comment below!

Here's hoping I take my own advice and stop staring at my clock & start getting a good night's sleep.

If you would like for me to discuss a specific topic, feel free to leave a comment below or you know you can always flip me an email.

Until next time!

Sarah Ahmed electronic signature

Sarah Ahmed
Co-founder
WellNest Psychotherapy Services