How To Manage Family Stress And Improve Sleep During The Pandemic

Guest Post By Denise Gassner, PhD and Founder of There’s a Monster in My Closet

If you’re reeling over a lack of sleep in your household during this pandemic, you’re not alone. Perhaps you find yourself tossing and turning as you attempt to wind down for the night. Or maybe you’re at a complete loss as to why your kid(s) just. won’t. go. to. bed.

 With all of this extra time on our hands – less commuting, no extracurriculars, fewer social engagements – you’d think this would be the time to catch up on those zzz’s that we so often sacrificed.

Instead, sleep has become a household battle that you just can’t seem to win. What’s the deal?

stress sleep

Society is stressed.

 It probably doesn’t come as a shock that life in the time of this global pandemic is stressful. A recent nationwide poll reports that more than half of Canadian respondents find it stressful just to leave their homes in the current climate of physical distancing.

But even within the protection of the home, families are likely feeling heightened levels of anxiety. Individuals are coping with fears related to the health and safety of their close circle. Parents are juggling work-from-home responsibilities mixed in with full time childcare or homeschooling. Uncertainties surrounding economic and financial stability are looming.

And though they may not speak up, children are not immune to these household stressors. They are overhearing conversations about this global threat and trying to make sense of it all. Their schedules have been uprooted. They are isolated from their friends,  and despite every effort to conceal, they likely feel and respond to the emotions of their parents.

In fact, a growing body of research suggests that parental anxiety significantly contributes to a child’s anxiety, and vice versa. We are intimately connected

Stress and sleep just don’t mix.

This constant thinking about and adjusting to our “new normal” has spun us into a state of hyper-arousal that’s enough to cause anyone to lose out on a little shut eye.

A rapidly beating heart and a racing mind are simply not the recipe for an easy transition into dreamworld.

The physiologic and mental processes that characterize hyper-arousal are commonly associated with difficulties in falling and staying asleep throughout the night, in both adults  and children

And once we begin to feel the effects of lost or irregular sleep, our wake times become more and more difficult to manage, contributing to irritability, emotional reactivity, more acute anxiety and…worsened sleep.

Related: Is Your Teen Getting Enough Sleep Right Now?

Manifestations of stress appear in sleep behaviours.

Stress is not one dimensional. It impacts whole body systems in significant ways, which together hinders our ability to get the quality of sleep needed to feel restored.

 Stress may lead to:

·  Difficulties falling asleep (prolonged sleep onset)

·  Waking in the night with the inability to resume sleep (disrupted sleep maintenance)

·  Racing heart, shallow breaths, cold extremities when falling asleep

·  Feeling fatigued despite sufficient hours in bed

Yet, as many parents are well aware, children often experience emotions in unique and seemingly unrelated ways.

In addition to the nightly symptoms of stress that we may feel as adults, children can display a variety of novel signs that may also be a side effect of stress:

·  Bedtime resistance or delaying behaviours

·  The emergence of new fears/worries

·  Frequent night wakings

·  Desire to sleep with parents

·  Increased reports of nightmares

·  Episodes of bedwetting

·  Excessive crying or irritation in young children

·  Inability to relax

·  Acting out/increased irritability/inattentiveness/lack of concentration

·  Decreased appetite

·  Unexplained headaches or abdominal pain

·  Boredom/unwillingness to engage in activities/avoidance of activities enjoyed in the past 

How to manage family stress and improve sleep:

Though the list may seem daunting, or outright stressful, not all hope is lost. 

While studies have shown that poor sleep can be a family affair, the good news is that several techniques have proven highly effective at improving sleep quality and quantity, in adults and children, alike.

1) Practice good sleep hygiene

Healthy sleep comes from tuning in to what our bodies need:

Keep consistent sleep and wake schedules 7 days a week, including age-appropriate naps for young children.

Establish a strong and predictable pre-sleep routine, helping the body wind down and cueing the mind that sleep is to follow.

Block out external lights/sound that may be disruptive during sleep. Use warm (red/orange) light and a fan or white noise where needed.

Minimize the use of devices (blue light disrupts the release of melatonin), especially in the 1-2 hours before bed.

Manage consumption of caffeine and alcoholic or sugary drinks.

Resist snacking close to sleep to avoid sending your body conflicting cues.

2) Spend time outdoors

Our brains use light and dark cues to regulate our sleep systems. The greater the difference between light and dark in a day, the better our sleep. 

Getting outside gives our eyes a boost of brightness (the natural light produced by the sun is up to 500 times stronger than indoor, artificial lights) and a corresponding boost in that sleepy time hormone, melatonin, when the world goes dark once again.

3) Exercise regularly

Exercise is an excellent anti-anxiety and antidepressant. When you’re exercising, you turn that rushing mind off and reap the benefits of all those yummy endorphins. This translates to less hyper-arousal when later trying to fall asleep. 

4) Practice relaxation techniques

These are doubly beneficial as they reduce both physical and mental stress while also combatting symptoms of insomnia:

·  Guided meditation is an excellent tool for quieting the body and the mind. For children, you can try relaxing bedtime stories (there are lots of apps out there that can help you out).

·  Deep breathing has wide ranging physiological and psychology benefits. Even 10 deep breaths can calm the body and mind enough to drift off into sleep. Practice this technique with your children and make it an anticipated part of their bedtime routine.

·  Progressive muscle relaxation involves the sequential tensing and relaxing of each muscle group of the body. This technique not only focuses the mind, but relaxes the body at the same time. Do this with your kids at bedtime for an excellent wind down activity.

·  Boost resilience and minimize stress by working to reframe your own negative thoughts and emotions and helping your kids to do the same.  

5) Incorporate family time into your routine

Carve out a special time to meet as a family  and reflect together about the day. Focus on gratitude and what you have to look forward to tomorrow.  

Positive communication is infectious and is demonstrated  to be a promotive factor in getting a good night’s sleep for the whole family.

As we look forward and make adjustments to our daily lives, poor sleep need not be part of the ‘new normal’. Prioritizing healthy sleep practices as a family can help to reduce stress, increase sleep quality, and contribute to overall physical and mental health, night and day.

*It’s important to note that difficulties sleeping may be caused by a variety of underlying factors and should be discussed with your doctor if symptoms are prolonged.*

Denise is a university educator, a sleep enthusiast, and a mom of two. She started There’s a Monster in My Closet to help all families find a healthy sleep groove that allows them to thrive in this world. 

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