We all look forward to a good night’s sleep, but many of us roll out of the bed in the morning feeling less than refreshed for numerous reasons. Before bed, for instance, it’s a bad idea to gorge on spicy foods, drink alcohol, fire up a political war on Twitter, freak out watching a horror movie, or worry about finishing a work project. Add the potential stress and anxiety caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and we all could be trudging around like zombies.
But not to worry. “Sleep’s a biological need,” says Les Gellis, associate teaching professor of psychology in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences. “Sleep is going to come—and it’s counterproductive to become concerned and worried about whether you’ll be able to sleep at night.”
Gellis is an expert on insomnia and other sleep disorders whose recent research focuses on sleep hygiene characteristics—lifestyle behaviors associated with good or poor sleep—and the prevalence of insomnia in the college student population. He’s conducted studies on developing healthy pre-sleep cognitions as a way to treat insomnia and is currently working on an app that tracks the content of thoughts prior to sleep. “People hear incremental beeps throughout the evening. And when they hear a beep, they’re expected to say what’s going through their mind,” he says. “We can better assess the pre-sleep experiences associated with good versus poor sleep and, for the user, it may be useful as a way to be mindful of thought patterns in bed and to estimate how long they have been awake during the evening.”
It’s important to keep pre-sleep thoughts emotionally neutral, he says. To further help ease your way into some peaceful shut-eye during the pandemic, Gellis fielded several of our questions, offering the following advice and information.
Can you elaborate on emotionally neutral pre-sleep thoughts?
Pick up a hobby or something you’re interested in that will capture your attention but not provoke or elicit any thought that could trigger alertness or strong positive or negative emotions. I don’t recommend self-related thoughts, so do anything you can to separate from yourself. For example, a participant in one of my studies made their own crossword puzzles in their mind before they went to bed, and another participant interested in fantasy novels created new worlds in their mind before bed. Things like worry, anxiety, stress, strong emotions—these are the enemy of sleep.
How does the pandemic affect our quality of sleep?
Stress is such a big factor—it’s one of the main, immediate precipitants of poor sleep. It typically triggers at least a transitional or beginning disturbance in sleep. And this pandemic is one of those major stressful precipitants that could play a role in initial sleep disturbances for a lot of people. If people are concerned about their finances, health, or the health of a family member, it may be natural to have some difficulty sleeping during this time period.
Can you discuss sleep’s connection to our immune systems?
Good sleep is associated with better immune functioning and may help individuals fight off a virus, so it’s important to give yourself the opportunity to sleep. Getting a good night’s sleep will be different for different people. For adults, it’s generally recommended they get more than seven hours, but again it depends on the individual.
Why is practicing good sleep hygiene important?
It’s useful to help prevent a short-term problem from becoming a long-term, chronic problem. And it’s good sometimes to prevent a bad night’s sleep from occurring. During particularly stressful periods, like what’s going on now, it’s kind of normal and expected that people might have a bad night’s sleep.
Can you share some recommendations for good sleep hygiene?
Avoid caffeine after noon, and avoid napping as well. If you do nap, keep it under 30 minutes—the reason is that’s around the time when you get into deep sleep, that really restorative sleep. You should also stay away from the bedroom when not sleeping and leave the bed when you’re unable to fall asleep and/or feel frustrated about the inability to sleep. Before bed, try to have some down time or at least keep the lights dim. Once in bed, maintain a dark environment, avoid electronic devices and don’t look at the clock.
If you’re inclined to do things like deep breathing or meditation, those are great practices either before you go to bed or if you wake up during the middle of the night. A lot of this is individually dependent, so what’s really important about these behaviors is to know your body and how different things affect it.
I would also advise people to be wary of pharmacologic remedies and avoid chemical dependency. These products are only recommended for an as-needed or short-term basis and not as a long-term solution. They should be used only as a last resort.
How can people working from home avoid the temptation to nap?
It’s important to stay active and try not to put yourself in those sorts of susceptible, vulnerable positions, like lying down on your couch.
In general, do you think college students are getting more sleep during the pandemic?
I don’t know of any data that would suggest that, but it’s possible for people who maybe weren’t previously meeting their sleep needs. If they’re in a different environment now, things may be a little more subdued and low key. They may be getting more sleep because they aren’t in an exciting, enthusiastic social environment. They’re not hanging out with their friends, and they’re either with their family or self-isolating, so that could give them more of an opportunity to get that shut-eye. To me, that would be a good thing. So maybe some people have less stress, but not having much social contact could potentially be stressful for some. It’s not a particular easy time for some college students. They’re finishing classes and finals, and the seniors are looking for jobs. I know that transitional period can be difficult, and some students might feel as though they’re missing out.
How do circadian rhythms influence our sleep?
They play a very big role. Our sleep-wake cycle lasts slightly more than 24 hours, and the light-dark cycle entrains our circadian rhythms to align with a 24-hour cycle. Getting early light in the morning can help. It tells the body, “OK, it’s time to be alert and awake.” And that very important hormone known as melatonin gets suppressed. Then, in the evening, darkness tells the body, “OK, it’s time to get ready to go to bed,” and melatonin will get released. But some people’s circadian rhythms are naturally biologically delayed, so they will wake up later and go to sleep later. Again, it’s important to know your natural sleep needs and patterns and try to accommodate them.
Any other thoughts on getting a good night’s sleep?
Sleep’s a lot like love or happiness. The harder you try to get it, the more it eludes you. Sleep is going to naturally occur if you allow yourself to be put into the position to be able to obtain it.
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Also of Interest
Detecting gravitational waves from deep space. Developing “smart” medical devices. Probing the historical interplay between music and political power. These are just a sampling of Syracuse’s broad range of research.
Whatever career you pursue, a background in psychology—the scientific study of behavior—enhances your employability. Just as importantly, it helps you understand yourself and others.