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Too Anxious to Sleep?

Take the advice of these experts.

A bed with a white frame and sheets.
Photo illustration by Slate Photo by Ljupco/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Whether this period of uncertainty has you experiencing insomnia for the first time, or you have chronic sleep issues, there’s some general guidance everyone can follow to minimize sleep disruption. “Sleep hygiene” is a set of practices—part of the wider field of sleep medicine—that anyone can employ to get a better night’s rest. The basic tenets are probably familiar: Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Go outside and get some sunlight in the mornings, and in the evening, spend an hour relaxing before bed.

But even if you adhere to these basics, it’s still possible to have trouble falling asleep, particularly when your anxiety is high. And sleep is vitally important right now, as a key part of keeping your immune system strong and generally staying healthy. So we called on some experts for their advice on how to further improve your sleep hygiene. Brandon Peters, a neurologist and sleep physician at Virginia Mason Medical Center, emphasizes that the important thing is to minimize the amount of time spent in bed not sleeping. The bedroom should ideally be a place reserved for sleep, so it’s best if you’re not eating or watching TV there. You should go to bed feeling sleepy, even if that means delaying bedtime, so that your transition to sleep can occur more quickly. Similarly, if you wake up during the night and spend more than 15–20 minutes awake, he recommends that you go into another room and do a relaxing activity.

It’s also important to identify what Charles Czeisler, the chief of the division of sleep and circadian disorders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, calls sleep stealers. Phones, tablets, and other light-emitting devices are most definitely sleep stealers: Using them before bed can make it more difficult to fall asleep and can shift your circadian rhythms, causing you to be more tired in the morning when you wake up. Peters suggests that, before bedtime, you leave your phone in a different room, eliminating the possibility of notifications disrupting your sleep and removing the temptation to check your phone if you wake up in the middle of the night. If you currently rely on your phone’s alarm to wake up, an old-school alarm clock is a good investment, as it will allow you to get some distance from your phone at night.

Pets are another common source of sleep disruption, says Czeisler. Since animals don’t have single, consolidated sleep like humans do, Czeisler says they should spend the night somewhere separate from you so they’re not jumping onto your bed or otherwise interrupting your sleep. For tips on how to sleep-train your dog, check out this Slate pet advice column.

Czeisler also recommends wearing soft earplugs when going to bed in order to block random noises in your environment. He says that even if it’s quiet when you’re going to sleep, you’ll benefit by putting them in at bedtime rather than risk being disrupted by honking or an animal barking in the middle of the night. He adds that some people find sound machines relaxing—they also serve the purpose of masking ambient noise.

Another sleep stealer is light, and even a small amount of it from a partner coming in and out of your room can be an activating stimulus and interrupt sleep. Czeisler suggests wearing a soft eye mask that can conform to your face and block out light.

So much of what’s going on in the world right now is out of our control. But one very small silver lining of quarantine can be the opportunity for more rest—hopefully having a little more control over your sleep environment can bring you a touch of much-needed solace.