“There’s no doubt that this has been a difficult year for everybody,” says Dr. Nate Watson, co-director of the UW Medicine Sleep Clinic. “Spending a lot of time-consuming media around disturbing events, what’s now referred to as ‘doomscrolling,’ doesn’t put a person in a mindset for sleep.”
As one of the nation’s top sleep experts, Watson notes that the last few months have been uniquely challenging for getting a good night’s sleep.
“It’s hard to drift off to sleep if a person is grinding on the particular activities of the day,” he says. “Those really prevent you from moving into a calming state.” So if you’re feeling particularly tense at night and bleary in the morning, you’re not alone—and while you may be powerless to control stressors like wildfires, economic slowdowns, and the shutdown of Quibi, Watson has some advice for taking control of your slumber.
That’s thanks, at least in part, to the explosion of consumer technology replicating gear that used to only be available in clinical settings. In particular, Watson is looking forward to investigating data gathered by the Sleep Score app, which monitors users’ nighttime behavior and offers suggestions, then pipes (anonymized) data over to scientists. The app was developed at UW by Watson along with computer scientist Shyam Gollakota.
Watson’s planning to do a deep dive into that data in the near future, but he’s noticed some interesting trends over the last few months: Some sleep habits seem to have slightly improved during the pandemic. In particular, Watson says, we’re sleeping about 7 minutes longer every night (granted, that’s not a ton, but at this point every minute’s a blessing) and sleep schedules have more consistency from weekends to weekdays.
“That’s probably mostly due to the fact that many people are not commuting to work,” Watson suggests. According to the American Time Use Survey, the two greatest activities that eat away at sleep are commuting and watching TV. But with the steady creep of election stress, and now with uncertainty around the transition from Trump to Biden, stress can feel as corrosive as the longest commute.
If you need help getting to sleep, Watson says, it’s important to keep in mind that “sleep is something that happens given the right circumstances, it’s not something you do.” His advice for anyone lying awake at night is to protect your sleep schedule by maintaining consistent bedtimes and waketimes. Exercise in the morning, eat at the same time each day, and use blue light at consistent times to signal to your brain that it’s morning.
The most difficult suggestion? “Put your device down. Turn the TV off.” Okay, fine, if you insist.
Routine is key, Watson says, and when stress disrupts that routine it's vital that you afford yourself a little time to escape—particularly right before bed.
“People should seek out the things that make them happy, whatever that is,” Watson says.
“Walking your dog or petting your cat, or speaking to a loved one, or reading science fiction or whatever it is. Seek out those things that make you happy, that take your mind away from events of the day.”
Oh. Right. Feeling happy—we'd almost forgotten that was an option.