7 Tips to Sleep Better and Relieve Chronic Pain During COVID-19

August 5th, 2020  by  Jess Christensen, NBC-HWC

About 50 to 70 million Americans suffer from a sleep disorder which hinders daily life and adversely affects health, according to a study in the National Library of Medicine. Sleep is the most important aspect of wellness. Even before the pandemic, insomnia was widespread. It has only been enhanced by COVID-19 stressors. Not only does it affect your mental and emotional wellbeing, but it also affects your physical wellbeing. Getting adequate sleep can make or break your day, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to do everything we can to stay physically and mentally healthy. As a health coach at Hinge Health, I hear users with chronic pain complain of having sleeping problems. To help them, I arm them with some useful tactics to get better sleep and reduce their chronic pain.

Sleep is an important form of self-care during COVID-19

With all the challenges that the pandemic brings, it is important for you and your members to focus on self care. When you’re stuck in your house all day, every day, it becomes difficult to separate work life from home life. When we are working from home, playing from home, eating at home, and exercising from home, the days tend to blend together. This lack of separation contributes to poor sleeping patterns. According to SleepFoundation.org, the pandemic has also caused a massive increase in anxiety and depression due to social isolation and fear of current and future circumstances. This has a direct correlation to sleeping problems.

Instead of spending your energy worrying about the pandemic, I recommend channeling that energy into sleeping better. I know it sounds odd to relate energy to sleep, but focusing on improving your sleep habits is an essential form of self care during this time. Sleep may be the last thing on your mind right now, but it can have tremendous benefits. Below, you will find 7 helpful ways to help you sleep better at night.

Connection between sleep and chronic pain

According to a PMC study, up to 88% of people with chronic pain disorders have sleep complaints and at least 50% of people with insomnia, the most common sleep disorder, suffer from chronic pain. There is a deep connection between sleep and pain, and if we can improve our sleep, we can reduce our joint pain.

COVID-19 has also caused a decrease in movement and exercise each day. Many of us lost our commute to work--even if it was just a walk to and from your car or subway stop to the office. Your gym may be closed and maybe you’re not meeting your walking or running group anymore. This lack of movement has led to an increase in joint pain (read: 5 Ways to Incorporate Movement While Working from Home). There is a connection between sleep and these aches you’re feeling. Our bodies’ recovery processes, hormone levels, and immune system are compromised by lack of sleep. If you are not getting adequate sleep, you are not giving your body a chance to heal and repair.

Daily challenges of sleep deprivation

When discussing stressors, I like to use the analogy of a backpack loaded with bricks. Add a brick for work stressors. Add a brick for home stressors. Add a brick for social stressors. Now add a brick for pandemic stressors and another for the civil unrest stressors we are also experiencing right now. Not getting enough sleep can add another brick to an already very heavy backpack. Our brains are overloaded with stressors and this makes it extremely difficult to sleep. Sleep deprivation can have a huge impact on productivity at work and at home. Fatigue lends itself to brain fog and lack of focus. It becomes difficult to prioritize things appropriately when we have little sleep. Many times, people find they need a crutch like caffeine or heavy snacking. These crutches affect our hormones, and it can have a compound effect on sleep. The more we lean on these crutches, the more we fall into bad sleep habits.

7 tips to sleep better at night

There are many things that are outside of our control right now, so it's important to focus your attention on the things we do have, like how we practice sleep hygiene. Here are 7 strategies you can employ to help improve your sleep habits and get better sleep at night.

1. Reassess personal thoughts and vision on sleep. Check into your inner world. Sometimes, we worry so much about not being able to fall asleep that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Before going to bed, thinking about how tired you are going to feel the next day sets you up for failure. Reframing your thoughts on sleep to have a more positive outlook can help tremendously. Focus on quality over quantity. Shy away from thoughts like, “Oh no, it’s 10:00. If I don’t fall asleep right now, I won’t get my full 8 hours.” Instead, replace those thoughts with positive ones. Think about giving your body a chance to recover and repair. Think about how great you are going to feel the next day. Sleep is meditative by nature: Sleep is a healing space for both mind and body. We should just let go and let our body take over. “When I sleep I am recovering and repairing.” Try meditating on this statement for 5 minutes before bedtime.

2. Reshape your space. Make your sleep space cozy and comfortable, so it becomes a place you look forward to snuggling into at night. This can be really helpful in unwinding from a stressful day. You don’t have to go out and buy a bunch of things; just adding your favorite blanket or pillow can make a difference. Think about surrounding yourself with calming colors, sounds, and smells depending on your preference. A white noise machine with rain sounds and a diffuser with lavender essential oils does the job for me! Anything that makes your space peaceful and cozy will elevate your sleep experience.

3. Evaluate your daily flow. Look at your day and see where you can change your routines. Is there anything that could be affecting your sleep? Sleep can even be affected by the 1st thing you do in the morning. Waking up at the same time each day can help set a normal sleep schedule. During the day, think about taking some time each day outside. When you’re cooped up in your house all day, it’s difficult to separate sleep time from day time and work time. Try not to nap during the day so you feel tired at bed time. Also, don’t shape your day by how you wake up in the morning. We almost always feel tired right when we wake up. Get up anyway! Sometimes getting your feet on the ground and doing that big morning stretch is the best thing you can do to set yourself up for a good day and a good night of sleep.

4. Check what you’re eating and drinking. We all know that caffeine late in the day can have a huge impact on getting to sleep at a reasonable time. Beyond caffeine, think about how much food and drinks you are consuming. When you eat too much before bed, your body is focusing its energy on digesting, rather than relaxing into sleep. Take time after a meal to digest. Maybe this means you take a walk after dinner. Even reading a book or watching a movie can give your body time to digest and wind down. This is also true for eating too little before bed. Those hungry stomach growls can keep you up. Think about having a small healthy snack, like a piece of wheat toast or fruit, before bed to curb that hunger.

5. Establish a nightly routine. Take 30 mins before bed to set yourself up for a successful night of sleep. Do this every night so it becomes routine. Before you get into bed, check off all the personal hygiene items (i.e. brush your teeth, wash your face, take your medicine, etc.). Make a hot cup of tea to drink before bed or take a hot bath. If yoga is something you’re interested in trying, a few simple yoga stretches can help you relax both your mind and body for bed. Try looking up yoga stretches or flows before bed. Once you get into your cozy bed space, try listening to relaxing music or reading a book to take your mind off day-time stressors. Meditation will also help tremendously in unwinding. If this piques your interest, download meditation apps, or look up some breathing exercises online. A free meditation app I love is called Insight Timer. It provides helpful meditations for sleep, stress, and anxiety. These strategies will help you go from 100% to 50% to sleep gradually. It may take some experimentation with these different strategies to find what works best for you. Personally, finding a routine and relaxation pattern for my mind has been the most helpful strategy.

6. Limit screen time. According to The National Sleep Foundation, 90% of people in the U.S. admit to using a technological device before turning in for the night. What we don’t realize is that using electronic devices resets our internal clock. It tricks our minds into thinking it’s day time. It increases your alertness when you should be winding down. This affects our sleep hormone, melatonin, which tells our bodies it’s time to shut down and go to sleep. Putting phones, computers, and tablets away 30 minutes before bedtime can help you fall asleep easier. Keeping the lights in your house dim before bed is also important to tell your biological clock it’s night time.

7. Reset when insomnia hits in the middle of the night. If you find that you are waking up in the middle of the night and you can’t sleep, take a look at your day. Something may be off sync during work day. Maybe you’re burning the wick at both ends. When people wake up at those times, they are probably thinking about work. If this happens to you, try writing down what’s going on in your mind. Sometimes a brain dump into a journal can help relax your mind and metaphorically get your thoughts out. You can also try listening to calm music and meditation. This can help you shift to a calm mind. It can even help to leave your space. Go get a glass of water. Read a chapter of your book on the couch. Reset your mind. Then come back to your bed and you may be able to sleep better.

It’s also important to note: If you try these tips, but still experience sleep issues, you may also be suffering from anxiety or depression issues and it’s worth scheduling time with your doctor to strategize ways to address the underlying issues behind your insomnia.

However, for the majority of people, trying these tips to help you sleep better will have noticeable effects on your physical and mental health. As a health coach, I see results of my Hinge Health users first hand. One of my participants who suffers from back and knee pain recently explained to me she was dealing with several additional stressors that made it difficult to sleep well. She experienced many sleepless nights that contributed to her chronic pain and affected her ability to manage the stressors. She knew she had to prioritize sleep to help her feel better. She focused on taking time for self care to help wind down at night such as drinking tea and spending time with her loved ones. Through our conversations, she actively prioritized her sleep, so she could better care for her mind and body. Meditating helped her change her mindset on sleep. She says, "I no longer see the glass as half empty.” After I recommended the above 7 tips, she took control of changing her sleep habits. As a result, her chronic back and knee pain were reduced and her sleep improved. If you put more energy into better sleep habits, I guarantee you’ll see results in every aspect of your life.

Hinge Health’s virtual clinical model combines physical therapists & clinicians, health coaches, and technology to more effectively reduce chronic back and joint pain at lower spend. To find out how Hinge Health can help you and your members improve outcomes at lower spend, request a demo below.

Jess Christensen, NBC-HWC

About the Author

Jess Christensen is a Board Certified Health Coach at Hinge Health with a degree in Nutrition Science. She has 16 years of experience helping others live better and has been balancing working from home for the last 8 years. In her off time, you would likely find her outside adventuring with her husband, taking care of her furry animals, and most recently attempting to grow her first vegetable garden.

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