According to this survey from Sleep Standards, 77% of the 1,014 Americans who responded reported that coronavirus is impacting their sleep in some way. Judging by the headlines, it appears that some people are sleeping really well while others are struggling to sleep at all. But with people experiencing bouts of fragmented sleep, strange dreams and other sleep disruptions, it may also be a little more complicated than good sleep or insomnia. So, we wanted to take a closer look at the different impacts of this global crisis when it comes to sleep and try to parse the why behind it all.
According to a recent report from Express Scripts, a prescription benefit plan provider, there’s been a 21% spike in the use of anti-insomnia, anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications between February and March 2020. In short, anxiety paired with the general disruption in routine that’s occurring right now can mess with sleep hygiene. But of course, there’s more to the story than that—or at least there are biological reasons behind the type of sleeplessness many are experiencing right now. According to this article from Health, “The relationship between stress and sleep issues is complex, but studies have shown that stress affects various neurotransmitters that impact the brain.” The article goes on to quote Brandon Peters-Mathews, MD, a sleep medicine doctor at Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, and author of Sleep Through Insomnia: “Increased cortisol, which is elevated as part of the stress response, may be of particular importance. These chemicals may shift the sleep-wake balance in the brain, which may increase sleep fragmentation and lead to insomnia (habitual sleeplessness or inability to sleep) and increased dreaming.”
At the same time, there are some other potential factors contributing to the widespread lack of sleep that is being reported. Health also attributes sleeplessness to the fact that staying at home so often and obsessing over our news feeds is causing many to engage with more blue light than normal, which can throw off sleep. And, finally, insomnia can be linked to low mood—if you feel depressed, you’re more likely to take more naps during the day, and people staying at home expend less energy in general—making it harder to go to sleep at normal times. Increases in alcohol consumption and TV watching and decreases in exercise are also factors that can impact sleep.
On the other side of the coin, a new study from Evidation—which used data from 68,000 fitness trackers to examine how people are behaving during lockdown—showed that people are moving 39% less and sleeping 20% more.
This article from Insider illustrates the “deeper sleep” phenomenon with the story of a recruiter who usually sleeps from 11pm to 6am, who is now finding herself going to bed at 10pm and waking up at 7am during the pandemic. The shift for this individual could be related to quite a few things. First, working from home makes it so that we don’t need to get up at the same time of day to get into the office at a certain time. Second, not having away-from-home activities after work, which sometimes go later than planned, can also help better regulate the sleep schedule.
How We Process The Pandemic Impacts How Much We Sleep
Insider goes on to explain that it seems people are processing the pandemic in a specific way. Because the current situation is eliciting new emotions and is unlike anything most of us have experienced before, it requires extra sleep—a time when we process new information and emotions—to take it in and understand. And while the pandemic is very anxiety-inducing, in many ways it trumps the normal types of small anxieties that keep us up at night. So while it is this huge looming problem, it’s largely outside of most people’s control. It’s just one large issue instead of a bunch of small pesky ones that staying up at night to tend could, ostensibly, fix. Finally, we may all be staying home from the gym and generally moving less, but that doesn’t mean our brains and bodies aren’t being worn out. Spinning our wheels over all the COVID-19 updates is very draining and that’s why many of us might be puzzling over why we feel more tired than normal or may be sleeping better than usual.
On the positive side, for some, it isn’t the stress that’s making them sleep more. It’s the elimination of the logistics that previously ruled their sleep schedule. By working from home all the time and staying within our own neighborhoods, our bodies have had a chance to fall into a more natural rhythm—so if you aren’t feeling constantly stressed or mentally drained, but are feeling more in sync with your body, pay attention! You could actually be living by your body’s best schedule.
Tips For Getting Better Sleep
Whatever it is you are feeling, there are ways to adjust your day and habits to regain balance. Below are a few ideas for COVID-19 related stressors and be sure to read our story about creating a sleep routine, many of the tips you’ll find in that story work for any time but might feel especially prescient now.
If you feel overwhelmed by the emotional stress of a pandemic, consider working low impact exercise like a nature walk or yoga session into your day to give your brain a break and challenge your body. Being sedentary can cause low mood and exacerbate some of the stress that may be caused by external factors like the current crisis. Additionally, consider limiting the amount you look at news updates. If you have media sources on your phone that cause you anxiety, turn them off for a while. Set a time maybe in the middle of the day to check for pertinent updates and limit your news consumption to that designated time.
If you are having trouble sleeping at night due to stress or because you don’t feel like you’re wearing your body out, consider working vigorous cardio into your day and trying to create more experiences for yourself. Pick a new route on your walk, cook something, read, engage your brain in a way that is different from work, housekeeping or watching TV. Try ending screen time at least an hour before you intend to go to bed and be mindful of the amount of time you’re spending on screens each day.
If you are experiencing habitual mental health strains or are having physical symptoms during this time, remember that many healthcare professions (mental and physical) are still practicing right now. Telemedicine makes access to healthcare simple even under these circumstances and it'll likely even be easier to fit an appointment into your day! Don’t ever be afraid to get the help you think you may need.