This pandemic is exhausting, mentally and physically. Our worlds have shifted, and it takes emotional energy to cope with that. Health-care workers are spending long shifts in hospitals and care homes trying to keep patients alive. Other essential workers are pulling overtime in grocery stores, warehouses, fields, production plants and delivery trucks to ensure the country has enough food, toilet paper and face masks. At-home workers are doing their jobs and, in many cases, also caring for and educating children.
But some of us actually have more time to sleep. If we’re working from home, our commutes have been eliminated. We don’t have to get ourselves ready for work and the kids — and their lunches — ready for school. We can sleep in, or perhaps even squeeze in a nap. But with these supposed sleep luxuries at our disposal, it’s still common to feel downright drained. Why?
Quality and quantity of sleep both matter
If you theoretically have more hours to spend sleeping but “are experiencing sleep difficulty, it’s absolutely logical,” says Rebecca Robbins, a postdoctoral fellow and sleep researcher at Harvard Medical School. Though you might be working from home or be in a low-risk category, “the worry of being impacted can loom larger than life on your sleep and mental bandwidth.” The uncertainty of the pandemic, concern for others and ourselves, and the utter lack of control is a perfect storm for insomnia and sleep difficulty, Robbins says.
A study out of Wuhan, China, involving 3,637 participants who were covid-19 free found that the prevalence of insomnia increased significantly along with worsened insomnia symptoms during the outbreak. The main causes included anxiety, depressive symptoms and fear of getting infected, but also economic-related stress, difficulty handling social distance restrictions and changes in daily life.
As we experience repetitive days under duress over a long period of time, we move from acute stress to chronic stress, which takes a toll on the brain, says Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and the Weill Cornell Medical College, and host of the “Personology” podcast. “Chronic stress raises cortisol levels . . . and it can certainly cause you to have more awakenings during the night. It doesn’t matter if you have the time to sleep.”
Finally, “everything we’re doing is new, and [it] takes a lot of energy to do new things,” says Lori Russell-Chapin, a professor of counselor education and co-director of the Center for Collaborative Brain Research at Bradley University in Illinois. The mental and emotional burden of novel experiences — from being hyper-alert while grocery shopping to grieving the loss of a loved one from afar — wears on us.
More hours in bed isn’t always the solution
Although you might have more opportunities to rest during this period, additional time in bed doesn’t necessarily improve your sleep quality. “Your bed should be the place that you crave for sleep,” says Robbins, co-author of “Sleep for Success!” If you allow yourself to lie there and toss and turn, “you can actually start to develop insomnia, because the bed starts to be that stressful place . . . as opposed to where you fall into peaceful slumber.”
Saltz says oversleeping can lead to problems, too, such as impaired cognitive function. “Oversleeping is likely to make you feel ‘less sharp-minded’ and ‘blah’ in terms of mood,” she writes via email. Getting seven to nine hours of sleep each night on a consistent schedule is recommended, not logging 12 hours just because you can.
It’s certainly tempting to stay up late when you don’t have to be in the office early, or snooze for a couple of hours midday because you’re at home. But with those habits, “we’re messing around with our natural circadian rhythms,” Russell-Chapin says. “If you nap in the daytime, you’re not telling your body that [you’re] supposed to nap at night for eight hours.”
Steps to improving your sleep quality
The tenets of good sleep hygiene — such as getting some exposure to sunlight and limiting caffeine intake — shouldn’t be overlooked. Setting and sticking to a sleep schedule should be a priority, because our circadian rhythm acts as a well-oiled machine, Robbins says. “Commit to keeping your bed and rising time as close to the same time Monday to Monday as possible,” she writes via email. “If you are a true night owl and prefer late bedtimes, find a schedule that you can keep throughout the workweek and operate on your preferred rhythm.”
But keeping a consistent schedule is only part of the solution. During the pandemic, it’s common to “lie down and your mind is still going because there’s just no downtime,” says Alyza Berman, founder and clinical director of the Berman Center, which offers mental health treatment in Atlanta. You might be thinking about how you forgot to buy hand sanitizer at the store, whether you have enough toilet paper left or how your nurse friend is coping with being on the front lines.
To improve your sleep quality, you have to calm that brain activity, something Robbins says she didn’t learn to do until she went to a meditation retreat. “What we have to do to fall asleep is quiet our mind,” she says, “and that’s exactly what you’re doing when you’re meditating.”
But you don’t need a retreat or even an app to get started. The one tool Robbins suggests? A five-minute timer. Before lying in bed, find a quiet place. Sitting comfortably with your eyes closed, try “calming the mind, breathing heavily and deeply, and moving away from stressors in your environment,” she says. As thoughts enter the mind, “acknowledge them and then come back to the breath, come back to something that’s tangible in the present.” The goal is to slip away from stress and prepare your brain and body for sleep. Robbins says that those who meditate regularly experience better-quality sleep, because they fall asleep faster and into a deeper sleep.
Both Robbins and Saltz agree that meditation takes practice, so you’re not likely to see life-changing results the first time you try it. But sticking to some meditation for even five days could help you reap the rewards of better, deeper sleep, Robbins says.
Transitioning as society reopens
Although it’s unlikely that we’ll return to our lives as they once were — at least for some time — some workplaces are beginning to reopen across the nation. We might see different schedules or more opportunities to work from home, but some of us will go back to a set schedule that might be a difficult jump from our current state. If you have enjoyed not having to commute or put in long hours away from home, how can you ready yourself for this shift?
Robbins suggests preparing for your transition as you would an upcoming trip. If you were heading to London, for example, “in the week leading up to that trip, you’d be starting to switch your calendar a little bit closer to your destination.” She says to take small steps each night, such as going to bed 15 minutes earlier, to move in the direction of your new schedule. These incremental adjustments give your body and mind time to adapt.
Besides our sleep schedules, there can be additional stress and exhaustion as we reenter the world. From worrying about whether we’ll be infected to wondering whether we’ll still have a job, some fear of the unknown remains — and that, as we know, is tiresome.
Digging into the “what-ifs” usually causes anxiety, Saltz says, which expends a lot of energy. “We’re not going to be able to get uncertainty to go away.” The best approach for dealing with uncertainty, Saltz says, is to first pick a trustworthy source for information, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (cdc.gov) or the World Health Organization (who.int), to help you make decisions such as whether to wear a mask. Then, allow the remaining uncertainty to sit with you, rather than fight with it or run away from it. “The only way you can coexist with [uncertainty] is to sort of let it float like a cloud and be there. It won’t be in your front windshield. It’ll be off to the side . . . so you can drive.”