4 Ways to Sleep Comfortably in an Unfamiliar Place

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This is a guest post by Shaun DMello, a writer with a wide range of health and wellness brands.

Wake up refreshed anywhereWith the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the world, you may be finding yourself sleeping in unusual circumstances. Whether you’ve had to quarantine outside of your own home, are traveling by necessity, or just feel overwhelmed by current circumstances, sleep isn’t something that you should have to worry about. After all, adequate and good quality sleep is essential for your immunity.

Unfortunately, sleep disturbance is a common problem when you have to go to bed in an unfamiliar place. Studies describe this as the ‘first-night effect’, a phenomenon in which sleep is disturbed or poor quality, particularly for the first night. To effectively sleep comfortably no matter where you rest your head, it helps to understand the problem.

Why Sleep Quality Suffers in an Unfamiliar Place

Just as your body has an immune system, part of the natural defense against infections, we also have a survival system that increases arousal, fear, and stress in response to perceived environmental threats. The "first night effect", or phenomenon of impaired sleep in a new environment, is part of this response. Your brain views the unfamiliar surroundings as potentially dangerous, and one hemisphere of the brain stays more active to detect any threat. This works like a watch dog, easily detecting any sounds or environmental changes while you sleep, then alerting or waking you up. Before the dawn of civilization, our ancestors would have benefited from this ability, which could keep them safe from predators or intruders.

So, how do you get past it and catch those zzz’s? Fortunately, there are some simple steps that you can take to improve your chances of sleeping comfortably when you’re in a new environment.

Be Aware of Your Bed

If I had it my way, I’d carry my entire bed or mattress with me everywhere, but that is unfortunately impractical. What you're sleeping on can have a huge impact in how you sleep. If you're going to be staying somewhere for a while, make sure the support doesn't sag or squeak. It may need to be replaced so you don't have noise or poor support interrupting your sleep.

The next best thing you can do is carry your own pillow. Pillows actually have a huge impact on sleep quality because an ill-fitted pillow on a high quality mattress is still going to impair sleep. Get a high quality pillow that will provide optimal support, allowing your body to maintain a neutral alignment, no matter your sleep position. If you forget to carry your pillow, just use a small folded towel to create a cervical pillow. You can then position it at the base of the pillow to support your neck. Aside from the physical benefit of carrying your own pillow, it will also help to induce a sense of comfort and familiarity because your pillow will have a familiar scent.

Stick to Your Routine

The importance of a healthy and consistent sleep routine becomes most apparent when your life is interrupted. If you have a sleep schedule at home, it would be best to follow the same when you’re in an unfamiliar environment. If you’re traveling across time zones, this may not seem like much of an option, but there are steps that you can take to prepare for the change. Start by adjusting your bed time gradually in the days leading up to your travel to ease into the new time zone. Create a bedtime routine that helps you relax and creates a comforting atmosphere to tell your mind and body it's time for bed. Keep doing the same routine no matter where you are. Don't change your sleeping habits either. If you don’t normally nap during the afternoon, don't do it in your new location. Erratic sleep schedules and increased daytime napping will make it harder to get quality sleep at night.

Shut Out the Noise

When you’re home, you may be able to sleep through the sound of the loudest alarm, but when you’re in an unfamiliar place even the sound of the air conditioning could wake you up. That’s not surprising, as your brain is in a heightened state of arousal and more sensitive to any threats. To reduce the risk of sleep disturbance, sleep experts suggest using white noise or ambient noise apps to drown out any external sounds. Even the sound of a fan, the television, or music could work as white noise, but you need something that works for you. Better still, you could invest in good quality earplugs that can block out all sounds.

Darken Your Room

Artificial lighting is known to adversely impact your circadian rhythm and lower sleep quality under normal circumstances. When you’re in an unfamiliar place, the impact on sleep quality can be even greater. While you should do your best to darken your room and turn off all lights, this may not always be feasible. For such situations, make sure to carry a light-blocking sleep mask. In addition to reducing light exposure during sleep, you should also cut down on exposure to digital screens and other artificial lights for a few hours before bedtime. Blue light from screens is known to impair sleep because it works as a stimulant and suppresses melatonin production.

While these methods will help significantly, there’s a lot more that you can do. Make it a point to adopt other lifestyle practices and habits that are conducive to better quality sleep on a regular basis, because good sleep hygiene is something that is cultivated over time.

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