Don’t let election stress ruin your sleep (here’s what to do)

CNN  — 

Tossing and turning instead of sleeping? It was a nail-biter finish to the race for the presidency, as CNN projects that Joe Biden will become the 46th president of the United States. All that constant stress simmering just below the surface is bound to affect our ability to relax.

Add to that the daylight savings time change on November 2 – yes, that happened this past week, not years, ago – and there’s a perfect storm of reasons to be suffering sleep deprivation.

“Historically, elections haven’t been as stressful as they have been the last four to eight years,” said clinical psychologist Vaile Wright, the senior director for health care innovation at the American Psychological Association.

“It has to do in large part with how we consume information these days, in constant connection with social media and the 24-hour news cycle. It heightens our awareness and our hyper vigilance and it makes it really hard to disconnect.”

A national sleep deficit

Wearable device tracker Oura crunched numbers from the “tens of thousands” of users and found that those Americans lost 138,833,045 hours of sleep on election night – that’s about 25 minutes of sleep on average for each person.

Sleep Cycle, an app that tracks sleeping patterns, also found its users lost about 30 minutes of sleep on average that night.

That might not sound like much – but add in the effects of America’s chronic sleep deficit and the impact starts to build.

Depending on people’s ages, we are supposed to get between seven and 10 hours of sleep each night. But according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a third of us get fewer than seven hours of sleep per night. In addition, 50 million to 70 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, insomnia and restless leg syndrome, which can ruin a good night’s shuteye.

A study by RAND Europe found that the United States loses an estimated $411 billion each year in productivity from workers who sleep fewer than six hours a night.

A lab-based sleep study found that people who were sleeping fewer than six hours a night for two weeks – and who thought they were doing just fine – functioned as badly on cognitive and reflex tests as people who were deprived of sleep for two full nights. Another study found that healthy middle-age adults who slept badly for just one night produced an abundance of the protein beta amyloid, responsible for the plaques characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease.

The list of negatives goes on: A lack of sleep is known to increase stress, which pumps up the body’s primary stress hormone, cortisol. Poor sleep leads to an increase in hunger and weight gain and impacts your ability to pay attention, learn new things, be creative, solve problems and make decisions.

A chronic lack of sleep is also closely tied to anxiety and depression, as the body struggles to cope with the stress of sleepiness.

Spring forward, fall back

Now consider the recent change to daylight savings time. Data collected over years of studying the effects of changing our clocks in spring and fall finds “upticks in heart problems, mood disorders, and motor vehicle collisions,” according to the National Sleep Foundation.

That’s because those changes mess with our circadian rhythm, a 24-hour body clock responsible for regulated sleep, appetite and mood. And while most of us adapt within a few weeks, some people never fully recover from the misalignment of their circadian rhythm.

“This can lead to more serious health problems, especially for those who experience ‘social jet lag’ because their demands at work or school take precedence over a full night’s sleep,” the foundation said.

What to do

First, wean yourself from constantly checking the news and your social media feed, Wright said.

“Just like anybody else, I can get caught into the social media swirl, where I’m just scrolling and scrolling,” she said. “We really need to be more mindful about how we’re spending precious time right now. And making sure we’re getting the most out of what we’re viewing.”

Instead try to get some exercise, which will reduce built-up stress chemicals and promote better sleep. Try to exercise outside – the sunlight can help restore your body clock while “nature calms your brainwaves,” according to stress management expert Dr. Cynthia Ackrill, an editor for “Contentment” magazine, produced by the American Institute of Stress.

Don’t turn to alcohol to calm your nerves or help you sleep. Alcohol may help you fall asleep, but it traps you in the lighter stages of sleep. Your body needs to experience all three stages of sleep – light sleep, the REM or dream state, and deep sleep – in order to fully repair and restore itself.

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The good news is that you can train your brain to achieve better sleep, thus giving your body more time to spend in both REM and deep sleep.

One of the first tasks is to set up your sleep environment and establish a relaxing bedtime routine. The REM stage of sleep is a lighter level of rest that can more easily be disrupted, so strive for few sounds, little light, and cooler temperatures in the bedroom – between 60 and 67 degrees is best.

Avoid caffeine after 3pm and fatty, spicy foods before bed, so gastric distress doesn’t wake you while you’re dreaming.

Set yourself up for relaxation. Taking a warm bath or shower, reading a book, listening to soothing music, meditating or doing light stretches are all good options.

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Don’t watch TV or work in your bedroom; you want your brain to think of the room as only for sleep. Don’t charge your devices in the bedroom – the blue light of cellphones or laptops can signal your brain to stay awake.

And don’t check them for updates on the election for at least an hour before you go to bed. The news will be there in the morning – when you’re better able to cope with it.