How has the pandemic influenced sleep?

Audrey Lee. 09/04/2021

An exhausted woman struggles to fall asleep despite the late hour. (Utoimage)

Over a year ago, the world found itself facing a pandemic that forced several countries into lockdown and chaos. Many might believe that staying at home would have helped people to finally solve the all-too-familiar problem of sleep deprivation. So has it helped the world to catch up on lost sleep? Or did the pandemic make everything worse?

Revenge bedtime procrastination
Back in 2014, a study from the Netherlands revealed how procrastination can be found in sleeping and was not limited to the academic sector. Coining it bedtime procrastination (later renamed revenge bedtime procrastination in 2018), the collaborators of the study defined it as the tendency to push back on sleep for no reasonable explanation. Procrastination is an emotional coping strategy that is used when faced with high levels of stress. Thus, the heightened levels of stress brought by the pandemic have made it more difficult for people to resist the urge of staying up at night. Despite being aware of its consequences, the desire for a temporary escape from the never-ending demands during the daytime makes people fall into an unhealthy cycle that evidently takes a toll on mental health. Adults worldwide have expressed dissatisfaction with how long they sleep and more than half of the Americans surveyed by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) have reported new sleep problems post-pandemic. But the problem is yet to be solved.

On top of throwing the world into a health crisis, insomnia became an even larger problem. It was already the most common sleeping disorder before the pandemic but has increased so much so that a new term called “Coronasomnia” is being used. Coronasomnia, a portmanteau (i.e., blend) of the words “coronavirus” and “insomnia”, has been used to describe the recently surging cases of insomnia as a result of the pandemic. In short, those with insomnia struggle to fall asleep and stay asleep even if they manage to. Stress, anxiety, and depression are all common side effects of sleep deprivation, and in turn, can lead to both insomnia and revenge bedtime procrastination. But if staying at home means easy access to beds, why has this reduced levels of sleep as opposed to increasing them?

Boundaries between work, school and home
Forcing adults and students to stay home has “blurred the line” between academic or work life and personal life. Though it may seem unimportant at first glance, keeping a distinct separation between the two is an important factor toward reducing work or school-related stress and maintaining mental health. When they become so closely intertwined to the point that it is hard to tell where one starts and the other ends, it makes it increasingly difficult to “switch off” from one and focus on the other, which can thus influence productivity. It also leads to an increased risk of burning out if overworked.

Escalated technology use
Aside from meetings and classes being replaced with virtual alternatives, people have become increasingly reliant on technology to communicate with friends or take a break from the turmoil. Since many areas have been on lockdown for over a year and counting, the restrictions make it difficult for people to meet up in person. And although people have already been reliant on devices before the virus, people cannot help but use more of them now since there aren’t many options open.

Social media and streaming services are more accessible than ever before and everything is only a click away. So when exhausted and stressed individuals have had a long day, it is far more likely for them to whip out their phone or turn on their TV than take a jog outside. Students who used to meet their friends outside have now turned to social media or other chatting platforms to make up for the loss of social interaction. And having a smartphone readily available just before bed makes people even more susceptible to revenge bedtime procrastination and coronasomnia. According to OpenStax, melatonin, a hormone that helps to regulate sleep, is “stimulated by darkness and inhibited by light”. So staying up late at night staring at a bright computer screen will signal the brain to stop producing melatonin and is counterproductive toward a better night’s sleep. The pandemic seems to be far from drawing to a close, so how can people improve their sleeping habits?

Adjustments to improve sleep
Due to the sudden changes in lifestyle, it is only natural that individuals’ circadian rhythms have been thrown out of balance. One way to slowly return to a normalized sleep schedule is to keep screens off in the bedroom. As mentioned above, stopping the production of melatonin will only keep the brain more alert. Instead, read a book or engage in an alternative activity that does not require a device. Avoid taking naps longer than 20 to 30 minutes to allow adenosine (a chemical that promotes sleep at night) to build up throughout the day. And although it may be tempting to do everything in bed, marking it as the “sleeping place” can help the brain associate it with only sleep and not productivity. In addition to maintaining a regular daily sleeping and working schedule, setting aside an hour or two specifically for relaxation can help to prevent revenge bedtime procrastination and thus improve sleep cycles. And finally, keep in mind that an individual suspecting they may be suffering from insomnia or any other health issue should always consult or reach out to a medical professional instead of self-diagnosing. Even if it turns out to be nothing, it is always better to be safe instead of risking further consequences in the future.

Cover Photo: (Everyday Health)

Audrey Lee