How COVID-19 is affecting our sleep

woman laying on her side under covers in white bed

Jan Fisher

Posted May 07, 2020

COVID-19 affecting your shut eye? Here’s how to get a dreamy night’s sleep in iso.

It’s hardly surprising that the stresses associated with COVID-19 are affecting our quality of sleep, but while many of us are tossing and turning, some are taking the global pandemic … well … lying down.

Sleep Health Foundation chair and founding director Professor Dorothy Bruck says while anxiety about significant life issues such as financial security, health, home education and social isolation can disrupt our sleep patterns, some people are reporting sleeping more soundly during the pandemic. 

Dorothy says this may be the result of adopting a more relaxed lifestyle while practising social distancing at home. “Some people are enjoying the time to slow down, do home-based things they didn’t have time for before and perhaps spend more time with family,” she says. 

This new world order, she says, might also give us greater flexibility about when we choose to go to sleep and wake up, thus allowing us to fit bedtime in with our own natural preferences. Night owls, for example, might be able to sleep in a bit when not rushing to catch the early-morning train, while some might be able to squeeze in a mid-afternoon power nap.   

However, Dorothy warns that varying sleep and wake times can also have a detrimental impact on sleep. “Routine is important,” she says. “The worst thing you can do is move your going-to-bed and getting-up time dramatically because that will muck up your body clock. Your sleep will not be quality and you will have more trouble getting to sleep and/or maintaining your sleep. You should aim for a fairly constant getting-up time and don’t spend more time in bed than you need for sleep.”

Another impact of the global pandemic, she says, is that many people are reporting weird and vivid dreams. “That’s a direct result of increased anxiety,” says Dorothy. “When people are more anxious and have this hyper-vigilance across a 24-hour period they are likely to get dreams that are more vivid and a bit more emotional. And people are more likely to wake up from them because your sleep is lighter.” 

It seems a cruel irony that while anxieties about big life problems such as job security and falling ill might be keeping us awake, a good night’s sleep is just what we need to help us cope with life’s uncertainties. “Sleep is important because it helps our emotional wellbeing,” says Dorothy. “If we’re sleeping well we’re better able to handle anxiety and worry about crisis situations.” 

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There is also strong evidence that insufficient sleep detrimentally affects hormone levels, brain function and exercise performance as well as contributing to obesity and risk of disease. According to the US Sleep Foundation a sleep deficit may even weaken the body’s ability to fight off disease. The foundation says that when we don’t get enough sleep our bodies make fewer cytokines – a type of protein that targets infection and inflammation, effectively creating the immune response vital to fighting any virus.  

But as vital as sleeping well is to our mental and physical wellbeing, Dorothy says worrying about not getting a good night’s sleep is one of the worst things you can do. 

“We don’t want people to lie in bed worrying about not being able to sleep … If you wake up in the night and can’t get back to sleep, the first thing to do is recognise your brain is often not in a position to co-operate. The more rational part of our brain is disengaged when we’re asleep so often problems seem much bigger at 4am than they are when you wake up and you can see things with a bit more perspective. She suggests trying to imagine a relaxing fantasy place, or thinking about your last holiday, or perhaps your next one. “Think about walking on the beach, or the garden or just something neutral and relaxing.” 

The Sleep Health Foundation has more than 90 fact sheets to help, including several specifically for the coronavirus.


Dorothy Bruck's top 10 tips for a good night's sleep

Step away from the media. Sure, take note of government announcements and official health advice, but don’t give in to gossip and speculation (or ideas about injecting disinfectant). 

Make time to unwind. Set up a routine before bed that includes activities designed to calm such as reading, listening to music or watching a movie.

A big part of taking care of your mind is taking care of your body. Exercise, eat sensibly, and avoid too much alcohol and caffeine, especially close to bedtime. 

Social distancing does not need to equate to social isolation. Talk to people, especially if you’re struggling with anxiety. You might find comfort in others. 

Worry still keeping you awake? Think about what the issues are and how you might deal with them tomorrow. It may help to write these things down, including a list about what you plan to do about them during the next few days.  

Your bed is predominantly for sleep. You want to achieve a strong connection between your bed and successful sleep. If you go to bed and find you cannot get to sleep, or if you wake up during the night and cannot get back to sleep because of worries, get up and do something relaxing in dim light that is quiet and away from the bedroom. Go back to bed when you feel ready to fall asleep. Also try to optimise your bedroom environment – making sure it’s a clean, relaxing, enjoyable space.  

Regulate your sleeping time. Try to go to bed and wake up about the same time each day, it sets up a cycle your body craves.

Light is a crucial factor in sleep. Try to get as much natural light as you can during the day and avoid any devices that emit blue light (phones, laptops, tablets) later at night. 

Avoid long naps in the afternoon.

Try not to dwell on your sleep struggles. If you have had one bad night you will probably sleep better the next night. If you are extremely fatigued and sleepy during the day, you may need to have a coffee or take a nap to function normally and safely.


Sweet dreams are made of this

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