How COVID-19 Is Affecting Our Rest (and What We Can Do to Sleep Better)
As the winter season approaches in the midst of a pandemic, many of us are looking for ways to keep safe and healthy. The secret may lie in an old Irish proverb: “A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book.” Laughter might really be the best medicine, as it keeps our moods positive and helps us sleep more soundly. When we sleep well, our immune systems produce and release proteins (cytokines) that help our bodies fight viruses and inflammation. This makes healthy sleep a great tool to help weather the coronavirus storm.
With this in mind, we might ask how COVID-19 has impacted our sleep (for better or worse). Hundreds of studies have already been conducted since the beginning of the pandemic to explore this question. So far, the answers are mixed.
Some people have used the current times as an opportunity to turn off their alarms and catch up on lost sleep. A recent study of 25,217 healthy participants from the US and 18 European countries found that people have been sleeping longer than usual during the pandemic. Similar results were found in another study, where information from 14,000 healthy participants from 11 countries indicated that participants stopped using their alarm clocks and slept as long as 8-11 hours each night. Other studies compared the sleep of people with and without pre-pandemic insomnia and found that a quarter of those with existing insomnia experienced a meaningful improvement in sleep quality during lockdown.
However, not everyone has been sleeping better this year. In fact, many people have developed sleep difficulties that they did not have prior to the pandemic. One largely negatively impacted group are frontline health care workers (doctors, nurses, and paramedics). Many of these workers, who did not have sleep disorders before the pandemic, now report acute insomnia. Family members of frontline workers also experienced more sleep difficulties from continuously worrying about the health and safety of their loved ones.
Why has the pandemic had such mixed effects on sleep?
To reduce the transmission of COVID-19, people have been asked to shelter at home and avoid social interactions. Some workplaces have adopted more flexible schedules, allowing employees to be more in control of when they start and stop their days. These changes may have impacted people’s sleep in several ways:
Matching work schedules to the body’s natural sleep “clock”. Many people only start to feel sleepy late at night and need to sleep later in the morning to get a sufficient amount of rest. The flexible work schedules that were put into place this year have allowed workers to follow their natural body clocks and sleep as long as needed. This can explain why some people have been able to sleep longer and better.
No need to watch the clock. For people with insomnia, knowing there is no imposed wakeup time and that they can sleep longer in the morning may have helped these individuals stress less about waking up at night or having trouble falling asleep, breaking the sleep-stress feedback loop. This might explain why some people who had insomnia prior to the pandemic actually experienced improvements in sleep during the shut-down.
Home alone. For people burdened with anxiety, sadness, loneliness, and/or the tendency to worry about health, being forced to be alone for an extended period of time while being exposed to the “infodemic” (a flood of information about coronavirus from multiple sources, some of which were not reliable) might have led to greater difficulty falling and/or staying asleep.
Confusing the biological clock. Light is the brain’s way of telling time. The brain interprets bright light as “morning” and darkness or dim light as “night”. This year, many people stayed mostly indoors, getting insufficient daylight during the day and too much artificial light at night. This can disrupt the functioning of the biological clock, leading to poor sleep.
Working extremely hard. Health care workers that developed acute insomnia had heavy workloads, sometimes working more than 40 hours per week without being able to take even 30-minute breaks.
Given the above-listed challenges, how can we maintain healthy sleep during the pandemic? Here are some suggestions:
Create a schedule and stick to it. Try to create a schedule that matches your body’s natural preferences and follow it consistently. You can combine your schedule with a bedtime routine that helps you fall asleep, which should be used at the same time each night.
Help your biological clock tell the right time. Make sure you get enough of the right kind of light at the proper time of day. Try to get outside for 30-60 minutes of daylight. If there is not much light (e.g., during the winter), you can use a bright lamp in the morning. At night, do your best to limit your exposure to bright light.
Feel calm at bedtime. Use relaxation techniques to unwind before bedtime. This will allow you to worry less and fall asleep peacefully.
Prioritize healthy lifestyle choices. Healthy eating and daily physical activity will improve your sleep.
Monitor your mental health and ask for help. It is important to monitor your emotional health and ask for help when you notice a change.
Remember, the pandemic will end! Working towards healthy sleep now will help you transition smoothly into the post-pandemic new normal, whatever that may mean for you.
“Never waste any time you can spend sleeping.” – Frank H. Knight
Reut Gruber is a scientist, psychologist and sleep expert. She is an associate professor in the department of psychiatry at McGill University and director of the Attention, Behaviour and Sleep lab at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute; Diplomate of the American Academy of Cognitive Therapy (ACT) USA; Licensed Psychologist, l’Ordre des Psychologues du Québec (OPQ), QC, Canada