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How to sleep better in these difficult times

Written by Diane Archer

With the coronavirus wreaking havoc on everyone and everything, even if you’ve never had a sleeping problem, this pandemic is likely keeping you up at night. Dr. Susan Molchan’s advice, first published in Just Care two years ago, might help you sleep better. To be sure, it was written at a very different time, but the advice holds.

With age, the total amount of time we sleep decreases, and sleep becomes more fragmented. So, we shouldn’t expect the same sleep patterns we had when we were younger. Many people’s body clocks seem to advance, so that they go to sleep earlier and awaken earlier. Most people need about 7-9 hours of sleep each night, though the right amount for any individual leaves them awakening refreshed and allows them to remain alert throughout the day (without resorting to stimulants like caffeine.)

If insomnia is a problem, the first things to address are medical problems that may be interfering with sleep. These include sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD) or heartburn, heart failure, pain, frequent urination, and medication. Alcohol too interferes with good, restorative sleep.

Second, while sleeping pills work, they are best used on a short-term basis. Even in the short term, sleeping pills can have side effects, such as impairing your ability to think clearly and leading to falls. In the long-term they can be habit-forming, lose effectiveness, and some may contribute to cognitive decline.

Third, basic sleep hygiene measures are important for just about everyone; a previous post describes them.

If sleep continues to be a problem after getting back to these basics, working with a therapist or even on your own on a program of cognitive-behavioral measures specially designed to help with insomnia has proven to be very successful. [Editor’s note: This includes having a routing bedtime and wake time, tracking the number of hours you sleep each night, using techniques to relax. Here’s a link to an online CBT treatment program New York Times reporter Austin Frakt used to address his insomnia.]

Finally, mindfulness meditation helps with a variety of problems such as anxiety and depression, and has also been shown to be helpful for sleep. A therapist or counselor can guide a patient in learning how to do it, and again there are books and online programs that can be used by do-it-your-selfers. Of course there’s an app for that too; Headspace is a popular one.

Here’s more from Just Care:

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