Quarantined at home? Sleep starting to go off-track? Learn how to sleep well during prolonged isolation from professionals who would know first hand—astronauts.
Greetings from my couch to yours! As I prepare this episode, I'm in my sixth week of sheltering in place. Like many people around the world, it's also my first experience with staying at home for so long. If you're also feeling self-quarantine cabin fever, you're not alone. (Well, maybe you are, but not in spirit!) Most of us are feeling the strain of social isolation and physical confinement.
Part of the isolation package is sleep disruption. I've heard from more than a few people that they've developed insomnia, feel tired all the time, or have been having more nightmares than usual. My sleep health provider colleagues have received record numbers of calls.
How do we deal with sleep problems in these unprecedented circumstances? Even most sleep scientists have never specifically studied the consequences of prolonged isolation and confinement, much less experienced it.
But you know who has? Astronauts!
The Institute for Biomedical Problems (IBMP) of the Russian Academy of Sciences conducted a bold and unique experiment in 2011. Six astronauts of diverse nationality and cultural backgrounds were confined together for 520 days in an environment simulating the inside of a spacecraft. Why 520 days? That’s how long it would take to complete a trip to Mars and back. The crew experienced a totally immersive simulation of what a Mars mission would entail. The scientists wanted to see how confinement and isolation would affect the astronauts’ performance, psychological well-being, and of course, sleep.
Most of us won’t be going to Mars any time soon, but perhaps we can learn a thing or two about keeping sleep on track during a less intense version of confinement.
1. Keep a consistent schedule
Take it from Scott Kelly, a retired astronaut who spent a year in the International Space Station. The first piece of advice he has for those living in isolation and confinement is to follow a schedule.
And there is science to back him up—schedules tend to falter during confinement. The 520-day Mars mission experiment found that the majority of the six-person crew, all of whom were healthy and physically fit before the hatch closed, experienced some degree of sleep disturbance. Why? One reason scientists suspect is altered sleep-wake timing.
Take it from Scott Kelly, retired astronaut who spent a year in the International Space Station—in confinement, follow a schedule.
Of course, this makes sense. Inside a spacecraft, and perhaps in a small apartment where many of you are sheltering in place, the normal cues of daily rhythms are not as strong. The astronauts didn’t experience routine outside events like sunrise and sunset. We don’t have the morning kid drop-off, the noon lunch-hour banter with coworkers, the 6 p.m. yoga class. Without external routines, we’re left to our own devices to keep a consistent schedule.
And that’s difficult to do when you go from the bedroom to the kitchen and back all day in your pajamas, able to sleep in whenever you don’t have virtual meetings or stay up because your kids don’t need to wake up for the bus tomorrow morning. But this willy-nilly schedule is detrimental to our sleep because, without a consistent social rhythm, our biological rhythm suffers too. Without a strong biological rhythm, we’re more prone to insomnia, sleep deprivation, and fatigue.
So, during quarantine, do keep up your normal schedule:
- Get up at the same time every day
- Put on real clothes in the morning
- Keep a similar work-rest-play schedule as you normally would
- Eat your meals at normal times
- Wind down for sleep as you normally would, even if you don’t have anything pressing the next morning.
Your body clock will thank you and reward you with quality sleep at night and alertness during the day.
2. Be intentional about exercising
Sedentariness creeps up on you during confinement. During the 520-day simulated Mars mission, the crew members wore wrist actigraphs, which tracked their activity levels 24/7. A clear pattern emerged—everybody became more and more sedentary over time. The mission scientists referred to this as “hypokinesis.”
Less physical activity actually leads to more fatigue as well as worse sleep.
So, don’t let confinement cramp your physical activity style:
- Go outside for a walk or jog (while keeping reasonable distance from others)
- Do yoga at home
- Do a few push-ups in between video conference meetings
- Set up a video chat workout date with friends
This will help you feel more alert during the day and give you better quality sleep at night.
3. Let there be light
Another thing that decreased for crew members during the Mars mission simulation is light exposure. No wonder their biological clocks were thrown off! Light is the number one zeitgeber (meaning “time giver”) for our internal clocks. It's why going camping without electronics is so effective at resetting your clock.
During your own quarantine, you may also find yourself exposed to less sunlight, since you won’t be driving to work, walking to school, or getting other little opportunities here and there to tell your brain that it’s daytime. This makes you less alert and prevents you from building up the sleep drive you’ll need at night for good sleep.
Light is the number one zeitgeber (meaning “time giver”) for our internal clocks.
Conversely, you may be getting more artificial light after sunset because you’re video chatting with friends or binge watching Tiger King. This confuses your internal clock even more, tricking it into thinking that it’s still daytime and suppressing melatonin production, which is crucial for strong circadian rhythms and quality sleep.
So, keep your days and nights separate:
- Go outside if possible during the day, and don't wear sunglasses if that's comfortable
- If you can't get outside, sit by a bright window and aim your face towards direct sunlight
- Dim your screens after sunset and try not to have them too close to your face
4. Nip insomnia in the bud
Only one of the six Mars simulation crew members developed full-force insomnia. That means insomnia doesn’t have to happen to you during confinement, either.
But do pay attention to your body. If you give yourself plenty of opportunities to sleep, but you still experience a few days in a row where you're having difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, it's time to hit the reset button before insomnia becomes chronic. That's especially true if you find lack of sleep is interfering with your daytime functioning.
Sleep does not reward effort, and instead, can run away from you if you’re trying too hard.
The best way to get your sleepiness back is to stop trying to sleep. That’s right—sleep does not reward effort, and instead, can run away from you if you’re trying too hard. So:
- Get out of bed instead of tossing and turning
- Read a book or watch a show (on a dimmed screen)
- Take your mind off of sleep with any activity that doesn’t jazz you up too much
- Then still get up at your normal morning wake-up time so you can reset your sleep drive for the next day
Make sure you keep your sleep and wake environments separate. During confinement, it might be especially tempting to stay in bed to watch TV, talk on the phone, or do work. But doing these activities in bed teaches your brain that the bed is a place for being awake. Eventually, your brain will start to act like it's in an awake place whenever you get in bed, even if you’re tired and ready for sleep.
If you have a small studio apartment or dorm room, you may not have a choice but to eat meals, do work, and sleep in the same room. In this case, try your best to change your surroundings between wakeful and sleepy times. For example, open all the blinds and play upbeat music during the day, and do all your wakeful activities as far away from the bed as possible.
Do all your wakeful activities as far away from your bed as possible.
But remember that it’s normal to have a bad night of sleep here and there. Don’t fret about it. Just follow the guidelines I laid out and know that your sleep is resilient as long as you trust your body and don’t interfere with what it needs.
Wherever you're sheltering in place right now, take comfort in the fact that your confinement and isolation is not nearly as bad as what the crew members experienced during their 17-month simulated mission to Mars. You can also learn from their experiences! Instead of letting your schedule disintegrate, becoming sedentary, and missing out on daytime light exposure, you can keep your body and mind on track. You can also head off insomnia before it becomes routine.
Good luck and stay well!