“It’s 3:00am, I am lying in bed, wide awake, stressed, not able to do anything, yet not able to fall asleep. After each night like that I would wake up at 11:00am, exhausted and anxious, with no motivation to exercise or eat healthy.
“One time I had a nightmare about my parents that was so scary, that I woke up petrified and started crying. I haven’t seen them in person for months and imagining them dead or mentally ill in a dream made me paranoid. I had to call them first thing in the morning to make sure they are well’, said Jamila*, a young woman who experienced sleep difficulties and nightmares during lockdown.
And it is not a single case. Normal routines of many people have changed because of school closures, working from home, social distancing and also because of the quarantine.
As a consequence of that we tend to lose track of days, weeks and time itself. The repetitiveness and limitedness of what we can do gives us the impression that every day is just a sequel of the previous one, not a brand new episode of a series we call life.
As one reporter in The Washington Post put it, we are all FED UP with what is happening in the world today. FED UP stands for:
Distance from others
Personal and professional concerns
Also, with home working becoming a mass phenomenon in 2020 many people forgot that it should not mean working from bed, and it led to many people developing a toxic relationship with their sleep routine.
Because of all the stress and anxiety that accumulates in our bodies during the day, we tend to sleep longer than usual without feeling rested. Living in a ‘new normal’ and increasing delays of our bedtimes and wake time has affected our schedules a lot, and it is not only the mind, but also the body, that needs some time to adjust.
Dr Andy Cope told The Stylist magazine that “stress means we sleep lightly and intermittently instead of achieving deeper REM sleep,” which, in the long term, may cause serious health-related issues.
Not taking enough care of oneself and drastically changing the sleep pattern can lead to short-term sleeplessness and eventually to chronic insomnia (the struggle to fall asleep at least three nights a week for three months or longer).
On this matter specialists argue that the current covid-19-related state of mind made a lot of people suffer from Coronasomnia – sleep problems related to the pandemic.
“Patients who used to have insomnia or who used to have difficulty falling asleep because of anxiety, are having more problems, and patients who were having nightmares have more nightmares,” said neurologist Alon Avidan.
Yet, many people still neglect the importance of a good night’s rest.
In his best-selling book Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker argues about how much better our brains work when we get good quality and how serious the consequences may be if we do not sleep enough.
Although, until 2020 our culture was not favourable for people who took their sleep routines seriously and got all the hours they needed. Workaholism and lack of sleep were praised and seen as an example to follow.
When in reality if we don’t sleep well, we find it difficult to concentrate, we are feeling disoriented and confused and also, we are more clumsy than usual.“As a society, we simply do not get the chance to sleep as much as we need, and this pandemic is allowing some of us to rediscover the importance of sleep,” Dr Ivana Rosenweig of King’s College said.
“Usually I can get myself to sleep before 4:00am, but when I have nothing set for next day I kind of stay awake until 4:00am. It’s better now but it used to be very bad in the past two months. I would try to put myself to sleep but I feel like something is bothering me and there is no point in sleeping, I feel the urge to do something but I cannot really do what needs to be done,” said Stella, who tries to fight with her anxiety by working hard.
“I think it’s because of the pandemic, I usually try to distract myself with lots and lots of work and then when I go to sleep, obviously I am not working and this is when everything hits me. I always have this worry about the future, how it’s going to look like, what is going to happen after the pandemic and maybe is it going to be like this forever? I also worry about my family that has been influenced. I try to keep the stress in me but I cannot do it for very long and it all bursts. I don’t think I have depression it’s just me swallowing down all the worries and then when the distraction is gone I start to digest it,” Stella added.
We all can acknowledge that sleep is necessary, but not many people are aware why. Sleep, especially its deep phase boosts your immune system, lowers your risk of developing health problems including: diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and also helps beat back stress, depression and anxiety.
Until before the pandemic, sleep difficulties were not as common, and yet there are many reasons why we don’t sleep well during the current difficult times. Most of them are related to one’s personal struggles, but experts point out the following as the most common ones:
- Loss of routine – everyone is being stack at home more than ever before;
- Worry – stress and anxiety can lead to poor sleep quality, makes it harder to fall asleep;
- Feelings of isolation – many people because of various circumstances had to spend;
- Too much screen time – it is recommended to put away any devices that emit blue light at least 30 minutes before going to bed;
- Too much caffeine or alcohol in the evening – one could think that a glass of wine or other favourite spirit in the evening time would help to cool the nerves down, but for many people it can have the opposite effect and postpone falling asleep;
- Too much sugar can have the same effect as too much caffeine – we tend to eat some sweet treats to feel better, but a dessert eaten too late may affect one’s ability to fall asleep;
- Not eating enough and not drinking enough water – it is difficult to fall asleep with an empty stomach or while feeling dehydrated;
- Not enough exercise – with limited possibilities of outdoor activities it is easy to put one’s body in a stagnation mode. It is challenging to fall asleep when one’s body is stiff from not moving much and cannot properly relax.
“In lockdowns I’ve found that I sleep between 10-12 hours a night but am always unrested, which is completely different to my normal sleeping habits of around 5-7 hours a night tops,” said Lee, an Illustration and Visual Media student living in London.
“I’ve also found, not during this lockdown but in March and November, that there’d be a couple of nights a week that I’d be completely unable to sleep and pull all-nighters due to stress about this situation going on which exacerbated the other oversleeping. I used to go to bed around midnight and wake up around 6:00am now I fall asleep at around 10:00-11:00pm and wake up at 8:00am,” Lee said.
“I think it’s a lack of motivation coupled with stress, I used to get up and exercise, shower, and then go to either Uni or work, and stay up late out with friends or at events, with everything now being online and there being so much less to do without travelling or being able to socialise there’s more time to stress and less reason to maintain a strict routine just for myself.”
The situation is unusual and challenging for many people, but there are also ways to minimise the effects Coronasomnia has on us. Here is a list of things we can do to sleep better:
- Reach out to your loved ones to reduce loneliness;
- Practice screen-free activities or a bed time yoga;
- Make sure the bed you are sleeping in is comfortable and that you keep it welcoming and cosy. Change the bed linen regularly, let some fresh air in before you fall asleep, add some decorative elements such as cushions and blankets;
- Avoid late afternoon naps – if you really need to take one, make sure to do so before 12:00pm or in the early afternoon;
- Stop watching the clock – instead of focusing on how much time of sleep you have left, focus on the actual falling asleep part;
- Get some activity throughout the day, outdoors, whenever possible, but avoid exhausting workouts in the evening time. Physical activity improves the quality of your sleep and extends its duration, but a workout done two hours before going to bed can have the opposite effect and boost your energy level to the point when you can have difficulties in falling asleep;
- Establish a sleep routine – set a regular sleep schedule aiming to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day;
- Expose yourself to natural light during the day and to darkness in the evening time to regulate the level of melatonin (a hormone responsible for our sleep ) in your body;
- Maintain a good daily routine – it does not have to be the most productive one, it is rather about having a few small things every day to look forward to;
- Develop a pre-bed ritual- home spa session, reading a book, a hot bath or maybe bed time yoga? Anything that calms one’s mind down and do not require looking at the screen;
- Do not have heavy meals in the evening – digesting a heavy meal requires a lot of energy and keeps the body awake for way longer than needed.
Dr Natasha Bijlani from the Priory Group has a golden advice that helped many of her patients get back on track with their sleep routines: “Don’t press the snooze button in the morning, regardless of how you slept and get out of bed; after a few days of doing that your sleep cycle will go back to normal. Not to mention that sleep in these short intervals is not of good quality and after waking up you will feel more tired.”
If it is not clear what is causing your tiredness or sleep difficulties or if the self-help methods will not improve the quality of your sleep, it is highly recommend to visit a GP who could then refer you to a Sleep Disorder Clinic.
For your own safety, do not take any sleep related medications before consulting a specialist. For more guidelines about insomnia visit NHS website.
* Some names have been changed at the request of the interviewees.
Featured image: DavioTheOne via Flickr CC.
Edited by: Ropa Madziva, Tom Tyers and Daniela Ferreira Teixeira.