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Can’t sleep? Mind racing? Experts say these 7 steps can help you get some rest during this unsettling time

There are things we can do to turn off our brains for a while.
There are things we can do to turn off our brains for a while.reewungjunerr - stock.adobe.com

It’s 2:20 a.m. and you’re obsessing again — about the deadly coronavirus, your job and whether you’ll have it in a month, your shrinking 401(k), your elderly parents and whether they’re safe, your kids spending yet another day playing “Minecraft.”

Plenty of people can’t sleep these days. How could we, with the drumbeat of news and the upheaval of life’s daily rhythms? The world feels like it’s unraveling right now, because it is.

“ ‘Virus’ and ‘pandemic’ — these words stoke our primal fears,” said Aditi Nerurkar, the medical director of the Cheng-Tsui Integrated Health Center at the Arnold-Warfield Pain Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “Everyone’s flight or fight response is heightened right now.”

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Sleep is one of the first casualties during times of great stress, but there are things we can do to turn off our brains for a while and, just maybe, get some rest. Start with these seven steps and call us in the morning.

However possible, maintain your routine

Many Americans are working from home right now, which can create its own stress. The contextual cues of the workday — the morning meeting, the T ride home — may not be happening now. So whenever possible, stick with your regular schedule.

“We want to provide ourselves with lots of reminders of normal,” said Michael Otto, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Boston University.

At the hour you’d usually commute to work, take a brisk walk and get some early-morning light. In the afternoon, around the time the kids would leave school, get them outside and moving. And do not be tempted to stay up late, thinking you can just roll out of bed in the morning and flip on the computer. That will further disrupt your sleep schedule. Remember: the more consistent the flow of the day, the more likely you are to fall, and stay, asleep.

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Schedule time to worry

In the bizarro world of the COVID-19 pandemic, anxieties can grow by the hour. Which is why it’s so important to schedule a time to freak out. It may sound odd, but blocking off a period of time each day to talk about fears and troubleshoot issues can help you sleep better — if you do it several hours before bedtime.

“Encapsulate the urge to worry early in the evening, and then be done with it, if you can,” Otto said, suggesting 5 p.m. as an optimal time. “Say ‘This is our time to fret and problem solve.’ ”

That can include planning when to go to the grocery store, divvying up chores, and checking in about the kids’ schoolwork and screen time. Then, try to put the acute stresses aside. Play a board game. Watch a movie. Take a bath. Unwinding before bed will help you sleep.

Go on a media diet

When working on mind-body issues with patients, Nerurkar recommends they go on a media diet. That means asking them to keep a lid on what kind of news they’re getting — and how much. Nerurkar, who worked for the World Health Organization before going into medicine, concedes that’s a big ask at a time like this. But there’s a difference between staying informed and “falling down the rabbit hole,” she cautioned. “It’s almost like we have to parent ourselves, and we have to ask ourselves, ‘Do I really have to read another article on this?’ ” The answer may be no.

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Get your heart rate up

Exercise not only promotes sleep, it staves off depression, something a lot of Americans suddenly find themselves at risk for, Otto notes. There are plenty of online workouts to try now that the gym is off limits, but if you prefer to go outside for a run, brisk walk, or hike, make sure to observe the 6-foot social distancing rule, steering clear of other people. Try for 20-30 minutes every day. Anytime is fine, except right before you hit the sack.

Take time to be mindful

“Mind-body therapies — meditation, yoga, tai chi — can help mitigate stress,” Nerurkar said, noting that phone apps can make it easier than ever to focus on mindfulness and breathing exercises. “Your breath is the gateway to managing anxiety moment to moment.”

She suggests focusing primarily on two types of breathing: “diaphragmatic,” or deep belly breathing, that fills the lungs and can lower stress, and “heart-centered” breathing, during which people breathe in to a count of four and breath out to a count of seven. Another type — alternate nostril breathing (in through one nostril, out through the other) — is also calming. “It’s really great to do before bed,” she said.

Be grateful and write down what you’re grateful for

Ninety seconds. That’s all it takes. Keep a notebook and pen next to your bed, and before you go to sleep, write down five things you’re grateful for.

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“Keeping a gratitude journal increases positive emotions and can decrease fight or flight,” Nerurkar said. It also helps with cognitive reframing — changing the way we look at situations in our lives. Rather than focus on how frustrating it is to work from home with a toddler underfoot, for example, think about how lucky you are to have a job that allows you to work remotely. Not to mention a toddler who’s happily oblivious and just glad to see you.

And if you still find yourself ruminating at 2:20 a.m.? Put the fears on hold.

Fears are like Dracula. In the middle of the night, they can seem huge and terrifying. So if you find yourself unable to sleep — or to slow the rush of anxieties — Otto says to write them down and explicitly tell yourself you’ll deal with them later, during your scheduled worry time. Which just happens to be during the day, of course.

“Write them down and get them in the light, and they lose their power — like Dracula,” Otto said. “You can save them up and later” — when this strange, unsettling time is finally over — “you can have everybody over for a ceremonial burning.”


Hayley Kaufman can be reached at hayley.kaufman@globe.com.