A couple of days ago, I read a post from a friend, Tina, which stood out above all the sentimental cliches and the glib jokes about lockdown.
“Since the coronavirus lockdown began,” she wrote, “I have not cleaned out the house or learned a new language. I have not read more than usual or taken part in any of the online courses or webinars that I have been urged to attend to help my business survive. I’ve rested and I have taken each day as it comes.”
Tina is shielding, her health is vulnerable and she needs to rest. But even so, the honesty was both refreshing and guilt alleviating.
Tina’s stance, I feel is also incredibly wise for those of us who are not under huge pressure as key workers or frontline staff keeping the nation running.
At a time when many of us at home are being bombarded daily by messages urging us to take part in the latest webinar or online workout, there is a great deal to be said for doing nothing at all.
ESCAPING THE GUILT TRAP
Resting is incredibly important for our mental health, our relationships, our productivity and creativity and our general wellbeing. Taking that hour each day to enjoy a walk around your local neighbourhood, noticing the birdsong without the traffic to drown it out is a natural tonic to most of us. The same goes for spending time outside in your garden if you are lucky enough to have one, watching the spring take effect on the world around you. Even just spending more time at home with your family, watching TV or reading allows us to just pause and slow down a little. The never-ending tick-tock of the next deadline or task is quietened for a while. We can breathe a little more deeply, and just take our time.
More specifically, resting more is by far the most useful thing to improve the quality of your sleep. And sleeping, it seems, is incredibly useful during a global pandemic.
THE BEST MEDICINE
Recent statistics from sleep app providers reveals that the average adult in the UK has started to get an extra 43 minutes of sleep every night since the lockdown began. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that most of us no longer have to commute, most of this sleep occurs in the morning, when we would normally be up getting kids to school and heading out to work ourselves.
To the judgemental eye, this might seem a waste of valuable opportunity to improve our health or fulfil all those bucket list ambitions we never have time for. But the news that we are sleeping more should have doctors, politicians, and indeed business owners up and down the land cheering.
In his recent and excellent book Why We Sleep, neuroscientist Matthew Walker unveils evidence that a silent epidemic of poor sleep is causing serious health issues including heart disease, cancer, dementia and mental health problems.
Despite the myth that some people are blessed with an innate ability to get by on less sleep, large scale studies reveal that we all need between 7 to 8 hours sleep to stay well and healthy. Among the benefits, crucially at this time, are immediate improvements to your immune response and to your mood and mental health.
Sleep well for eight hours (and not with the help of sleeping pills which change your brain activity so you don’t get the same health benefits) and your mood will improve. You’ll feel calmer and less anxious. Your immune system also receives an immediate boost and your blood pressure reduces. If you are over 45 and do this habitually, you will be 200% less likely to have a stroke than someone who is the same age who gets less than six hours of sleep each night.
Another issue sleep can help with, which many people are facing during lockdown, is weight gain. Sleep affects your body’s ability to control blood sugar levels and also hormones such as leptin (which tells you you’ve had enough food) and grehlin (the hunger-signalling hormone which will have you heading for a late night fridge raiding session).
For teenagers and young adults, the impacts of sleep are even more powerful. While missing lessons is problematic, the fact many kids are having a lie-in is likely to be raising their IQ levels according to studies at the London School of Economics and the University of Madrid. For workers, longer and better sleep improves productivity, creativity and — a surprising but valuable outcome in a time of working from home — it makes us more honest workers.
Perhaps as we all brace ourselves to ease back into the world as lockdown rules are relaxed, we might consider resting a little bit more as a general way of life in future. Let’s remember how good it can feel not to have a club or evening class to go to every night of the week, that the work still gets done if we don’t start too early and/or stay too late.
And let us hope that very soon our key workers and NHS staff (and many small business owners) get the opportunity to do the same. It is the one key thing many of us need to do to help us to stay healthy.
Five steps to help you rest…
It’s not easy to switch from stressed and anxious, or working flat out to becoming calmer and more rested. Here are three simple tactics to help you wind down.
1 Plan to do nothing. In order to fight that constant pressure from inside and outside to do more, be more productive and get things done, you need to give yourself permission to stop. You also need to ringfence the time. Consider it as essential as a workout or urgent medical appointment, because frankly, it is. Put the time you will not check your phone, do chores or answer the phone, or do any other tasks into your diary.
2 Declutter your diary. Just as empty space in our homes makes them feel calmer and more restful, a quieter schedule will help you to relax. For many of us that has even proved hard in lockdown with the million invitations for online webinars, virtual coffees and chats and Joe Wicks sessions etc. Use the break in routine to clear some time. It is an even more finite resource than space in reality. Only keep things that as Marie Condo puts it ‘spark joy’ in your regular schedule.
3 Get outside At least three major studies reveal that spending time in natural surroundings, such as the woods, or a park reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol. It’s one of the simplest and most effective ways to help you feel calmer, less anxious and mentally restored.