How Is Covid-19 Stress Affecting Our Sleep?
Stress and sleep deprivation are two things that are very closely correlated. Being stressed can negatively affect our sleep, and in turn, poor-quality sleep can make us even more stressed, as well as fatigued. Add anxiety into the mix, and you have a recipe for poor sleep and potentially poor health outcomes if left untreated.
Needless to say, 2020 has been a year where many people have experienced a spike in stress and anxiety due to the effects of the novel coronavirus COVID-19.
Not only can the virus itself cause sleep disruption and emotional stress, but on a broader scale, the fear of contracting it along with the measures taken to combat it, including lockdowns and quarantine, plus the real effects on peoples’ livelihoods, means a large proportion of the American population has had their sleep affected by the pandemic.
How to sleep well in times of stress is valuable knowledge to have, so we’ve dedicated a section of this guide to techniques and sound advice you can use to help switch off those negative thoughts, shake off that worry, and calm that anxiety for a relaxed body and mind that are ready to drift off to sleep easily.
The coronavirus has brought on what some experts are calling a new pandemic—”coronasomnia,” insomnia caused by the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sleep neurologists are reporting an increase in both insomnia and the misuse of sleeping medication by those recovering from COVID-19 and due to secondary effects of the pandemic such as fear, stress, and mood changes that come from social isolation thanks to lockdowns and quarantine.
What are the Sources of Stress and Other Disruptors of Sleep During the Pandemic?
One of the most worrying things about coronavirus and its effect on sleep is that there are multiple sources of stress and anxiety other than the virus itself, as well as other related factors that can affect sleep:
Being forced to stay at home with the ability to get out and about in public severely restricted can cause a whole host of new sources of stress, anxiety, and other sources of sleep disruption.
Reduced sunlight exposure. Sunlight is one of the essential zeitgebers (external cues that synchronizes our body’s rhythms with the Earth’s cycles).
It’s especially important to get a good dose of sunlight in the morning, but staying indoors can mean not getting this vital natural light, and this can cause disruption to your internal clock and hence your sleeping pattern.
Lack of Exercise. Being active during the day helps to promote sleep at night. During lockdowns and quarantine, people are restricted when it comes to going out. Being around home all day can encourage laziness when home comforts and sources of distraction surround us.
Being active during the day helps to promote sleep at night. During lockdowns and quarantine, people are restricted when it comes to going out. Being around home all day can encourage laziness when home comforts and sources of distraction surround us.
Lack of stimulation. Physical and mental stimulation during the day is essential for our general mental health and helps promote sleep when things get quiet and more relaxed as we wind down at night. Lack of stimulation through social contact and scenery changes can make you go a bit stir crazy and lead to sleep disruption.
Daytime naps. Having plenty of comfy spots around the home combined with boredom and not much to do, as well as a lack of energy due to not enough physical activity, can mean it’s tempting to have a daytime nap. But sleeping during the day can mean a lack of sleep when it comes time to sleep at night.
Excessive screen time. Having a lot of time to kill with not much to do when stuck at home means many people will turn to their smartphones, computers, TVs, and tablets for entertainment. But backlit screens that emit blue light can disrupt your circadian rhythm and delay sleep.
2. Working From Home
Not only can working from home mean more exposure to blue light from screens, especially at inappropriate times if your regular schedule no longer applies, but having the home double as the workplace can be detrimental for sleep in other ways.
Using the bedroom or bed as a workspace
Whether due to not having an appropriate workspace elsewhere in the house or just for the comfort factor, many people will choose to use their bedroom or even their bed itself as their workspace.
This can create a subconscious association between the place you’re meant to sleep and work—when your mind is on work when you’re supposed to be sleeping; this can cause delays in getting to sleep or disturbed sleep.
3. Disruption to Daily Life and Routines
Part of setting yourself up for a night of good healthy sleep is sticking to a regular daily schedule and routines throughout each day.
While regular routines and schedules have been effectively turned on their head or tossed out entirely due to lockdowns and other restrictions, working or staying up at odd hours can disrupt our circadian rhythm and master clock. In turn, this can affect everything from our immune response, how and what we eat, our digestion, and sleep.
4. Fear of and Actual Loss of Jobs, Income, and Livelihoods
One of the most sobering consequences of the pandemic has been the number of job losses and business closures. Many people have lost or had reduced their incomes, or even seen their entire livelihood taken away due to business closures.
Depression. Depression is a natural and understandable consequence of losing a job, business, or worrying about making ends meet. It can result in feelings of hopelessness, despair, worthlessness, and it can have a hugely detrimental effect on sleep.
While it can result in feelings of physical and mental fatigue and lack of energy, it can conversely cause insomnia, which is one of the most prominent telltale symptoms. An ongoing lack of sleep can make depression worse, so treatment should always be sought.
Stress and anxiety Insomnia can also be triggered by stress and anxiety.
The possibility of losing a job, having hours reduced, having to make ends meet as a business owner with the possibility of going under a real threat, as well as worrying about loved ones catching the virus and surviving if they do, are all sources of serious worry for many people.
The constant stress and anxiety triggered by these fears have proven to be a leading cause of insomnia during the COVID-19 pandemic.
5. Lack of Sleep and Anxiety
Stress, fatigue, and lack of sleep can form a vicious circle.
According to researchers at UC Berkeley, sleep loss can trigger excessive anticipatory brain activity associated with anxiety. Anticipatory anxiety is fear and worry around things that may happen and are often not predictable or controllable.
A lack of sleep commonly accompanies anxiety disorders. This research has found that sleep deprivation can trigger brain activity in the amygdala and insular cortex, regions associated with emotional processing. This activity mimics the same neural activity seen in sufferers of anxiety disorders.
This study demonstrates sleep loss can trigger excessive anticipatory anxiety and shows the clear causal relationship between the two.
How to Sleep Better in Times of Stress
There are several ways that you can reduce stress, reign in racing thoughts, and release the tension of anxiety to get a good night’s rest and stave off sleep deprivation, which only makes things worse in times of stress.
Practice Good Sleep Hygiene
This doesn’t mean having a bath or shower before bed — in this context, “hygiene” refers to behaviors and practices rather than cleanliness. Sleep hygiene refers to practices like:
Sticking to a Consistent Sleep Schedule
Going to sleep and waking up at the same time each day helps to set your internal clock and ensure you’re able to get the right amount of sleep each night.
Going to sleep at different times and being inconsistent can throw your internal clock out of whack and can mean you get tired when you should be alert and wide awake when you want to sleep. Tips for setting and maintaining a healthy sleep schedule:
- Consistency is key. Try to go to bed and get up at the same time every day as much as possible. If you allow yourself to sleep in on weekends or days off, try to ensure it no longer than an extra hour or two.
- Adjust to a sleep schedule gradually. If you need to bring your bedtime back from an exceptionally late time to a more reasonable hour, do it incrementally over a while. Adjust your bedtime by fifteen minutes every few days until you reach your desired bedtime.
- Resist the temptation to snooze. It may seem like hard work getting up in the morning when adjusting to a new sleep schedule. If you do need to set an alarm, make sure you get up when it goes off.
Don’t hit snooze—the extra sleep will be of poor quality and can mess with adjusting to your schedule. Eventually, your body should adapt, and you may not even need an alarm to wake up at the right time each morning.
- Get some sun in the morning. Environmental cues have a significant effect on your body clock. Getting a good dose of natural light in the morning signals to your body that it is morning and it’s time to kick into gear and wake up alert for the day’s activities.
- Dim the lights in the evening. Just like light can help your body wake up in the morning, it can signal that it’s the end of the day and time for bed, too. Avoid bright lights and especially blue light from the backlit screens of electronic devices at least 30 minutes to an hour before bed.
Following a Pre-sleep Routine That Prepares You for Sleep
Just like consistency is key in establishing and sticking to a sleep schedule, following a regular nightly routine can get you prepped and “in the zone” for sleep. A routine that relaxes and prepares you for sleep can signal to your body that it is time to wind down for sleep when done consistently.
Your nightly routine should consist of whatever works for you and can be things as simple as having a warm bath or shower, getting into pajamas, having a cup of tea or warm milk, and reading for 30 minutes.
Creating a Comfortable, Distraction-free Sleeping Environment
Your bedroom environment can play a significant role in how well you sleep. It needs to be an environment that is conducive to stress relief and relaxation.
- Keep your room tidy and free of distractions and clutter.
- Try and keep electronic devices with blue light-emitting screens out.
- Make sure it is completely dark—ensure curtains or blinds block outside light. Cover lights from alarm clocks or vampire lights on electronics.
- Make sure it is the correct temperature for comfortable sleep. For adults, the ideal temperature is between 60-67℉ (15.5-19.4℃).
Avoid Electronic Devices Before Bed
The blue light emitted by TV, computer, tablet, and smartphone screens can disrupt your circadian rhythm and can cause a sleep delay because it can block the production of melatonin, a hormone that makes you feel sleepy.
Avoiding exposure to blue light for at least two hours before bed would be ideal, but for many people, this is not entirely practical, so as long as you can is advisable, as is choosing non-electronic forms of entertainment like reading a book right before bed.
Limit Alcohol, Caffeine, and Other Stimulants
This one goes without saying. Stimulants like caffeine will keep you awake if consumed too late in the day. How late you can get away with that last cup of coffee will depend on your tolerance; generally, it is advisable not to avoid it from mid-afternoon, if not midday.
Alcohol can also disrupt your sleep, contrary to popular belief. While alcohol is a sedative and can make you relaxed enough to fall asleep quickly, it can result in poor sleep quality and duration.
While alcohol is often a source of comfort in times of stress and can help calm anxiety, it should not be relied on as a crutch, especially not for sleeping.
Exercise Daily—but Don’t Leave It Too Late
Our bodies are designed for physical exertion. Getting plenty of exercise during the day can help to promote sleep at night—you do need to ensure plenty of time to wind down after exercise, though.
An exercise that is particularly vigorous too close to bedtime can keep you awake rather than helping you get to sleep.
Exercise raises your body’s temperature, heart rate, and stimulates your nervous system. High-intensity activity close to bedtime can result in taking longer to get to sleep and poor sleep quality.
Use Relaxation Techniques to Calm the Body & Mind
There are several techniques you can use as part of your daily sleep routine to get yourself in the sleep zone; relaxed and worry-free. These include:
- Drinking a relaxing, sleep-promoting beverage like milk or a calming variety of tea.
- Practicing yoga or meditation.
- Using a sleep or relaxation app or listening to calming audio like sleep stories or guided hypnosis.
- Using relaxing bath salts, such as ones containing lavender.
- Massage is a fantastic way to relax and let worries melt away—it’s always a bonus if you have a willing partner, but self-massage can be just as effective for prepping yourself for a great sleep.
How Lack of Quality Sleep Can Worsen Immunity
A global pandemic is not the ideal time to be suffering from sleep deprivation, as sleep is vital for your body’s ability to fight off disease and infection. You are less likely to get sick and more likely to recover from sickness faster if you are getting enough good quality sleep.
Sleep and the Immune System
- Sleep is of vital importance for your body’s immune system to fight infection and sickness.
- The immune system produces proteins called cytokines during sleep that regulate the immune system response.
- The body needs the level of specific cytokines to increase when the body is under stress or fighting infection.
- Sleep deprivation means lowered production of cytokines and antibodies, reducing the efficiency of the body’s immune response and weakening your defense against illness.
- A weakened immune response may also mean longer recovery time from illness.
- A lack of sleep may inhibit your body’s ability to form immunological memory, where the immune system recognizes previously encountered threats and responds accordingly.
- Weakening of the immune system due to sleep deprivation can put you at risk of developing other chronic diseases and health conditions.
How Sleep Can Improve Your Mood, Mental Health, and Lower Stress
As well as strengthening your body’s immune system and having other physical benefits, getting adequate sleep has many benefits for your mental and emotional health and can help keep stress, anxiety, and worry at bay.
Emotions and Depression
Both your general mood and your risk of depression are linked to sleep.
- A lack of sleep can significantly raise your risk of depression and suicide. People who experience depression are highly likely to experience insomnia and disturbed sleep, further exacerbating the problem.
- Getting regular good sleep lowers the risk of depression and can help raise your general mood, which also has its own health benefits.
- With good sleep comes a level of general alertness that means your ability to focus and concentrate is significantly elevated.
- Concentration can affect memory, too, as the inability to concentrate on what’s at hand can mean it does not make it into your short-term and, eventually, long-term memory.
- Concentration can be doubly important when working from home during the pandemic, where you’re more likely to be surrounded by distractions.
Calorie and Weight Regulation
Watching what you eat takes on extra importance when your physical activity level drops, as in the case of home isolation during covid lockdowns.
Studies have shown that there are fewer instances of obesity among people who get enough sleep.
- People who get enough sleep have lower levels of appetite and calorie consumption.
- Getting the right amount of sleep keeps the production of the energy regulating hormone leptin at a healthy level. Leptin inhibits hunger, resulting in lower food (and therefore, calorie) intake—lack of sleep results in lowered levels of leptin.
- Shortened sleep can result in raised levels of ghrelin, the appetite-stimulating hormone. Increased BMI is associated with increased levels of ghrelin and reduced levels of leptin due to sleep loss.
- Lack of sleep can contribute to weight gain in other ways, such as decreasing motivation to exercise.