How Pandemic Life Has Changed the Way We Sleep
Recently, the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine published an editorial on how children and teens were sleeping in the pandemic. For a long time now, it has been widely known that the school system is not beneficial for the sleep needs of young people. As we change in age, our sleep demands also change. Teenagers typically have late circadian rhythms, meaning they feel sleepier later in the evening and will wake up later in the morning. The early start in the school system does not fit in with the demands of teenage sleep and doesn’t allow for teens to receive the amount of sleep they require.
The pandemic meant there was an opportunity to change this. As learning shifted to online, students were given the flexibility that they had never had before. They were allowed to sleep according to the demands of their circadian rhythm. The editorial wrote that from early data, we can see that students are sleeping longer. However, it has also been found that students are active less, on screens for longer than usual and have less exposure to daylight. This instead, could worsen sleep health over time.
After reading this editorial, I wondered how the pandemic may have affected sleep health more generally. For example, one study has found that Google searches for insomnia increased by 58% in the first five months of 2020 in the US. The study also showed that typically, these searches were most common around 3 am and were higher on weekdays.
The pandemic has affected us in many ways, and I definitely know of people who have been sleeping better than ever. However, what does the research say? Has the pandemic changed the way we sleep? And are we sleeping better or worse than before?
How Has The Pandemic Changed the Way We Sleep?
A large scale study in the US published a couple of months ago suggested that total sleep time for those who worked from home was largely unchanged. In comparison to those who were unable to work from home, home workers went to bed later and woke up later. This, like school students, may be the influence of fitting in with one’s own circadian rhythm.
Not surprisingly, the study also found that screen time had increased. Screen use, especially before bed, is associated with lower sleep quality. A 2016 study found that phone use after lights out predicted worse sleep quality, more sleep disturbance and fatigue for those younger than 41 years of age. Those who avoid phone use at least 30 minutes before bed see improved sleep quality, reduced pre-sleep arousal, and improved mood and memory. Since the pandemic, social media use has increased, and teenagers reported spending ‘all night’ on Snapchat and video calling. While the pandemic may have directly influenced our sleep via lockdowns, stress and working from home, it may also have indirectly changed our sleep through the increase in screen use.
Some Are Sleeping Better
Various studies believe that working from home can be beneficial for sleep. “The flexibility of working from home might be beneficial to sleep health, particularly for those who are now sleeping at a time that is more in line with their endogenous circadian rhythm” (Cited). This especially goes for workers who may often have had to travel for work, experiencing consistent and significant effects of jetlag. This also goes for workers who no longer were able to work night shifts. The circadian rhythm shifts that can occur with jetlag or shift work can impair immunity through reduced sleep quantity and quality. Interestingly, while sleep for these populations may be better now, there is a worry that going back into shift work may be more challenging.
Some Are Sleeping Worse
As mentioned earlier, google searches for insomnia have increased over the course of the pandemic. In China, there has been a 13% increase in new-onset insomnia and 12% of people with existing insomnia have experienced a worsening of symptoms. This increase has been associated with mental health and COVID-19 related stress. It is likely that following the pandemic, there will be an emphasis on services that provide treatment for insomnia.
For some people, it is not only insomnia that is keeping them up. One study has found that, during the pandemic, people in remission from PTSD have experienced a resurgence of nightmares. The content of the dreams is not necessarily COVID related, and the study has suggested that stress may be an important trigger. The study also notes that these nightmares may be an early indication of PTSD developing in healthcare workers who have had to endure the devastating impacts of the pandemic.
Similarly, those with narcolepsy are also reporting increased nighttime awakenings. The change in daily routine and sleep schedule has possibly led to increased narcolepsy symptoms, such as cataplexy and sleep paralysis. While the data for this comes from the Brazilian population who may be more vulnerable than other populations due to the level of social inequality, narcoleptic populations may have been affected worldwide.
As the research for how sleep habits and hygiene has changed during the pandemic is currently lacking, it is difficult to draw many cohesive conclusions. The evidence, while brief, so far demonstrates that for some people it may have changed for the better, and some the worse.
If you have found that your sleep has changed or it is something you are having difficulty with, you are not alone. Perhaps consider talking to your doctor about it. Sleep is an integral part of our lives. It helps us to function optimally, and it can improve our mood and immunity. It is so important that we get both adequate sleep quantity and quality. There are people out there to help and there are many resources too, some of which I will link below.
Have you been sleeping better or worse since the pandemic hit? What do you think?