As the US prepares for the spread of the coronavirus, health officials are turning to early research coming out of China. These studies can help us better understand how to combat COVID-19 and slow its spread.
One such study involves the use of progressive muscle relaxation to reduce anxiety and improve sleep in those infected with the virus. The study notes that quarantined patients with a positive diagnosis quickly developed stress and anxiety that disrupt their sleep. Because the virus affects the lungs, these patients could not be given sleep-promoting medications, which often harm lung tissue. Therefore, health workers turned to alternative methods to promote relaxation and help these patients find better sleep. The results suggest that powerful relaxation methods could provide a safe and effective way for all of us to find adequate rest during this crisis.
Surveying 51 patients, each with a confirmed case of COVID-19, researches taught half of the patients a progressive muscle relaxation technique. They found patients who used the relaxation method had reduced anxiety levels and experienced better sleep than those who didn’t. Additionally, positive results appeared after just five days of practicing the technique.
This evidence shows simple relaxation methods can provide a non-invasive way for doctors and nurses to help their patients sleep. These techniques are also something patients can do at home while in isolation, and do not require doctors or nurses to come face to face with the patient.
What is Progressive Muscle Relaxation?
Progressive muscle relaxation involves tensing specific groups of muscles as you breathe in, then relaxing those muscles as you breathe out. It’s a progressive exercise because the process moves throughout the body—from one group of muscles to another. For example, you might start with your feet and work your way up the shoulders. Experts note that as your body physically relaxes, your mind will feel less anxious and you will naturally drift off to sleep.
How Can Progressive Muscle Relaxation Help You Sleep Better?
The study mentioned above shows how progressive muscle relaxation was able to help those already infected with the coronavirus. As to work to protect ourselves against infection, we can learn from this study and use these same relaxation techniques to reduce stress and find more sleep—both of which are crucial right now.
As we monitor the spread of the virus, it is natural to feel anxious about the future. Social distancing and self-quarantining disrupt our daily lives, the onslaught of media coverage can feel overwhelming, and we may fear for the health and safety of our loved ones. All of this additional stress can be difficult to manage while we try to live normal lives. Therefore, it is bound to disrupt our sleep.
When we lay down at night, our minds often race with “what if” questions. Uncertainty is even more likely to increase with the spread of the virus. However, excessive stress causes an influx of cortisol (the stress hormone) in our bodies, which increases brain activity—forcing us to miss out on valuable rest.
McKenzie Hyde, a Certified Sleep Science Coach states, “Sleep loss creates a vicious cycle of anxiety–when we don’t get enough sleep, our bodies miss out on vital brain and muscle recovery, which can make it difficult for us to manage stress. But anxiety can also make it difficult to fall asleep. As we navigate through this uncertain time, it is more important than ever to manage our stress levels in order to find adequate sleep.”
Why Is Sleep Important For Protecting Against the Coronavirus?
As we do our best to stay safe and healthy during this time, sleep can help us in two ways—it helps boost immune function and reduces stress.
Healthy Immune System
Based on what we know so far, a healthy immune system seems to be the best defense against the virus. Those who have a healthy immune system can recover quicker and often experience fewer symptoms than those who don’t. Since sleep is a natural immune booster and a key component of good health, getting proper rest is one of the best things we can do to protect ourselves. Sleep gives our defense system a much-needed rest, and it allows it to react quickly and accurately. When we are sleep deprived, the immune system will respond more slowly to invaders, allowing for a higher risk of infection.
This fact seems to be the motivation behind the study mentioned above. The researchers involved understood the connection between sleep and immune function, so they set out to find a safer method of sleep promotion for those currently fighting the disease.
A good night’s sleep can also help us naturally lower our stress levels and maintain proper health. Medical evidence shows that with a disruption to the sleep-wake cycle, there is an increase of cortisol in the body and a negative impact on the immune system. This increase in stress can affect the central nervous system and, ultimately, the immune system, which is our primary source of defense against this virus.
Natural Stress Reduction
In addition to progressive muscle relaxation, there are other ways to alleviate stress naturally. Below, we include some tried and true methods to help you relax and find the sleep you need.
Regular exercise helps us manage everyday stress triggers. The endorphins released during exercise increase serotonin levels, which boost your mood and sense of contentment.
To control the spread of the coronavirus, the White House cautions against any non-essential outings, so you should avoid going to your local gym right now. However, getting some exercise, either at home or outdoors, can drastically reduce stress and help you sleep better at night. Consider going for a walk outdoors or downloading an exercise app on your smartphone.
To keep healthy, avoid junk foods when possible. These foods are linked to depression and can make stress worse. Instead, opt for foods rich in B vitamins, fiber, probiotics, vitamin C, and Omega-3 fatty acids. These vitamins promote a healthy nervous system and proper brain function, plus they can reduce symptoms of depression and irritability. Other sleep-promoting foods rich in B vitamins include whole grains, beans, peas, nuts, eggs, and dairy products. Those rich in Omega-3 fatty acids include avocados, tuna, salmon, and nuts.
Limit Internet Time
As the nation monitors the spread of the coronavirus, the media coverage is constant. It is important to stay informed, but you will also need a break from the onslaught of information. Try to designate a specific time of day to review updates, but limit the amount of time you are online, including social media. Too much exposure can trigger stress and anxiety, which will only disrupt your sleep and immune health.
Essential oils can both lower stress and help you sleep. Chamomile, sandalwood, and ylang-ylang oils can alleviate stress and anxiety. Clary sage oil works as a natural sedative that reduces cortisol levels. You can use a diffuser to dispense the fragrance throughout your home, or you can rub a few drops on your pressure points—such as wrists, temples, and feet.
Other Ways to Improve Sleep
Before heading to bed each night, use one of the stress reduction methods listed above. These will help alleviate anxiety and lower the amount of cortisol in the body. When you are more relaxed, you will be less likely to toss and turn once you lay down. However, be sure to schedule exercise at least 3 hours before bed. Exercise can stimulate the brain and make it difficult to fall asleep.
Rest on a Supportive Mattress
Like progressive muscle relaxation, a supportive mattress can ease tension in the body so you can rest more comfortably. As the body relaxes, the mind will quickly follow suit. A memory foam mattress hugs joints and muscles can provide a weightless sleep so you can find deep, restorative sleep.
Reduce Screen Time
Exposure to electronic light (blue light) before bed can disrupt natural melatonin production. To maintain your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle, avoid electronic screens at least 2 hours before bed.
Create a Schedule
Going to sleep and waking at the same time each day helps to set your internal clock—allowing you to fall asleep easily each night.
Declutter Your Bedroom
To reduce nighttime stress triggers, remove all clutter from your bedroom—including work, mail, laundry, exercise equipment, etc. This space should be your sanctuary—a place where you can completely relax without the influence of everyday stressors.
What Can You Do to Protect Against the Virus?
Staying healthy and reducing stress are crucial right now. In addition to the tips outlined above, the CDC recommends the following steps to minimize exposure to the virus.
- Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water. When you are not able to wash your hands, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent isopropyl alcohol.
- Avoid touching your face—especially the eyes, nose, and mouth.
- Practice social distancing and avoid any non-essential outings
- Clean and disinfect commonly touched surfaces—such as countertops, desks, phones, handles, keyboards, toilets, light switches, faucets, sinks, and tables.
- Wear a facemask if you are sick or if you are caring for someone who’s sick.
If the study on progressive muscle relaxation can teach us anything, it is the importance of stress management and sleep when fighting against the coronavirus. As we manage this difficult situation and do our best to ward off the virus, we need to stay physically and mentally healthy. Natural stress relief and proper sleep can help us do both, and improve our overall well-being.
This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.