- 28th July 2020
- Posted by: Calum Risbridger
- Category: News
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected our sleep?
If there is any consensus on the pandemic’s effects on sleep across the world, it is that it’s had a profound impact. As there’s evidence for both benefits and detriments, the overview below explores the nature of that impact. While further studies are needed for scientists to say with confidence how the pandemic is impacting our brains, some of the reasons behind current thinking on observed effects are also presented.
Why is sleep so important during the pandemic?
Sleep is the bedrock of physical and mental health, with its functions including tissue growth and repair, memory processing and emotional regulation, among others. Insufficient and irregular sleep are conducive to a wide array of health problems both physical and mental, including hypertension, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, anxiety, depression and other mood disorders.
It is clear then that even in less challenging times, sleep is essential to our wellbeing. During the coronavirus pandemic, however, some of its functions have rendered it even more important. Sleep strengthens our immune systems and their responsiveness to vaccines, so serves as an innate line of defence against viruses. Sleep counteracts the debilitating effects of stress, which is particularly prevalent now amidst disrupted routines, dramatically changed lifestyles and the threat of the virus itself.
- Most people are getting more sleep, as deduced from such measures as smart electricity meter readings. This is partly a result of relaxed social and professional schedules allowing us more time to sleep and enjoy a better work-life balance. Other factors include that we are spending less time engaged with electronic devices, which emit blue light and keep our brains stimulated. A survey of several hundred adults across Austria, Germany and Switzerland reveals people are sleeping around 15 minutes longer per night.
- People are getting up later, which according to sleep researcher Neil Stanley could be better for our health as it’s closer to our ‘natural genetic wake-up time’, considered to be 7.55am on average with some genetic variance.
- The unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic have afforded a unique opportunity to gain new insights into how sleep quality and general wellbeing are affected by social confinement against a backdrop of an omnipresent viral threat. The ongoing studies are reviewing changes to sleep patterns, the emergence of sleep problems and which population groups are most affected. It is expected these insights will not only help us to understand the challenges of similar situations in future, but also to devise solutions aimed at preserving humanity’s health.The author of one such study in the US who had already collected sleep data pre-pandemic found himself ideally disposed to do a comparative analysis. The results showed that university students studying remotely were averaging 24-30 minutes more sleep per night during the pandemic and had adopted a more regular sleep schedule. “Social jetlag”, i.e. the effects of resetting the body clock after a weekend of lie-ins, also decreased.
- Polls have found a significant minority are still sleeping less or less well than usual. Sleep specialist Brandon Peters-Mathews proposes that this could be due to elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Coronavirus stress results from financial hardship, social isolation, loss of our working roles and even loved ones. Unpredictability and uncertainty are symptomatic of a loss of control and rife stressors. Stress-related insomnia is on the rise, as evidenced by an increase in prescriptions.
- Professor Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, said that almost two thirds of the UK population have reported disruption to their sleep associated with coronavirus. Coronavirus stress and worry make us more likely to return to full wakefulness during our normal nightly awakenings. We are usually oblivious to these awakenings and any dreams we may have had; Michael Nadorff, director of the clinical PhD programme at the Mississippi State University psychology department, notes that it takes around five minutes from waking to begin encoding memory. Higher levels of anxiety mean that you’re more likely to stay awake to remember your dreams. Courtney Bolstad, a graduate student at Mississippi State, posits social rhythm theory may also be a factor, i.e. that disruption to our daily routines has the same effect on our circadian rhythms or body clocks, and thus our sleep.Disrupted sleep can also create an association of the bed with wakefulness, just as in homeworkers using their bedroom as an office. Our sleep disturbances can stoke anxiety if we lay ruminating or partake in other activities such as browsing the news.Restricted access to natural light and consumption of alcohol are other factors impairing our sleep. Daylight helps us calibrate our body clocks, while alcohol may help us to drift off but can inhibit the deepest stages of sleep.
- People are going to bed later. Ken Wright, Professor of Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, advises that later sleep timing is correlated with poor health outcomes.
- Widespread reports of coronavirus dreams have emerged, especially among those closest to the pandemic such as frontline service workers. Since peace of mind is associated with positive dreams and anxiety with negative dreams, coronavirus dreams may be better considered nightmares. They tend to feature violence or death, with dreamers ‘watching friends or themselves attacked or killed’, or some threat, be it the virus itself or a plethora of others: ‘bugs, zombies, natural disasters, shadowy figures, monsters, or mass shooters.’ Even mundane settings, like elevators and supermarkets, have featured as palpable vectors of harm. Deirdre Barrett, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University, posits that the virus may have so many manifestations because it is invisible.This phenomenon could be construed as supporting the longstanding notion that dream content facilitates our wakeful wellbeing by allowing us to subconsciously overcome anxieties or, in the case of nightmares, alert us to threats that could have escaped our conscious attention. Jennifer Martin, a Los Angeles-based psychologist, notes that dreams help people process our daytime experiences and as many of our stress-relieving outlets and activities are currently restricted, this additional stress processing is now handled in our dreams.