If your usual sleep patterns have gone off-course during lockdown, you are far from alone. As coronavirus rips through society, creating levels of global health anxiety that only a few weeks ago would have sounded like a narrative lifted from a film script, it seems ironic that one of the body’s key processes for keeping us physically and mentally well would be so disrupted.
We need good-quality sleep to function properly. Most of us need around eight hours; some more, some less. Losing one night of good sleep might make us feel groggy and agitated, but is unlikely to do us any harm. Prolonged lack of quality sleep, however, can disrupt the immune system and have a significant impact on mood. And at a time when more of us are fretting about the strength of our immune systems, it’s a cruel twist of fate that our lack of sleep is adding an extra worry to the smorgasbord of concerns we’re already feeling. So what’s going on?
Stress is both the short and the long answer. Whether it’s insomnia, daytime sleepiness, struggling to stay awake in the evenings or waking earlier than usual (or, if you’re really lucky, a combination), sleep-disturbance is a well-documented manifestation of stress. And while stress is usually a precursor to the fight-or-flight response we’re in the slightly odd situation where having to reckon this stress is wreaking havoc on our bodies while we’re safe in lockdown in our homes. We are in a high-alert state; our brains busily preparing our bodies for dealing with disaster, even if it doesn’t fall into our direct path.
The key mover here is cortisol, the ‘stress hormone’ made in our adrenal glands. When we perceive danger, the amygdala – a small, almond-shaped section of nervous tissue that is central to our emotional processing – signals for cortisol to be released to prepare the body to either deal with the threat (fight) or take ourselves away (flight). The effects of this vigilant state are well-known: increased heart-rate, pale skin, upset stomach, headaches, tense muscles, etc. We have cortisol receptors in most of our cells, receiving and using the hormone in different ways, our needs varying from day-to-day. But if the cause of our stress doesn’t go away – the threat of coronavirus is going nowhere fast – and the stress itself is not discharged, we remain on high-alert, maintaining those uncomfortable physical and neurological effects. It is an exhausting dance, but probably to be expected.
“It is entirely normal to have a range of emotional and physical reactions to a threatening situation, which are all now facing,” says clinical psychologist Lucy Johnstone. “Reactions like feeling on-edge, anxious, up-and-down in mood and finding it hard to sleep is completely understandable.” Of course, not everyone will be feeling wretched, but many of us will be experiencing a sharp reality-check in how stress is less a flippant catch-all term than, at times, a full-body assault.
Even people who normally cope well with stress may be feeling the effect of the lockdown as it impacts our ability to get outdoors, exercise and socialise – all things that help us manage stress in everyday life. People who normally find themselves sleeping regularly from midnight to eight in the morning might now find themselves falling asleep earlier, and waking earlier too. Neuroscientist vana Rosenzweig, who leads the Sleep and Brain Plasticity Centre at King’s College London, says this kind of disruption could be caused by a “desynchronisation between internal sleep-wake rhythms and the light-darkness cycle.”
Rosenzweig refers to circadian drive, a key function of our internal biological clock: “Our relatively steady state of alertness over the course of a day is due to the circadian alerting system, which is impacted by our exposure to daily light.” If we are exposing ourselves to less light while in lockdown, this system may be disrupted. “Depending on whether we are delayed or advanced sleepers – larks or owls – we might slip into waking or sleeping earlier or later than our normal daily routines.” This disruption, she points out, is exacerbated by increased exposure to the artificial lights from our laptops, mobiles and TVs following the news.
Sustained stress can make daytime snoozing terribly seductive. Now people are stuck working at home, the temptation of the sofa and a comfy blanket is just steps away at all times. Unfortunately, daytime napping – particularly late in the afternoon – can diminish something called ‘sleep drive’. “This is sleep’s homeostatic process,” Rosenzweig says. “The longer we are awake, the stronger our drive is to fall asleep. Prolonged wakefulness with high levels of brain activity leads to a build-up of the by-products such as adenosine [a molecule that helps regulate sleep] and strengthens our sleep drive.”
With less activity during the day and more napping during lockdown, the effects on our energy levels can be pronounced. Although it seems counter-intuitive, sitting in the same position for long stretches of time – in front of the TV or computer, for example – can bleed our energy because our body associates the stillness with going to sleep. Another known energy-stealer is poor posture. Considerable energy goes into keeping us upright. Slumping on the couch or sitting hunched forwards, cradling our phones, can put the spine out of alignment, meaning the muscles surrounding it have to work harder to compensate. Fortunately, this can be remedied with very simple exercises. (Let’s face it, we have time to try.)
There is no quick-fix for the chicken-and-egg situation of feeling exhausted by stress and needing to nap, then finding that napping throws bedtime out of whack. Keeping a gentle eye on what we’re eating may help. Although most things that bring comfort should be welcomed, eating lots of high-sugar foods will lead to rapid surges of energy as blood sugar spikes, then just-as-rapid crashes. This can feel rough. It is easier said than done when we’re not shopping much and crave convenience, but upping our protein sources (meat, seafood, eggs, dairy products) help keep us full and less likely to snack on sugary things, keeping our energy reasonably consistent throughout the day and, hopefully, increasing our sleep drive.
Reducing our access to sleep’s ‘healing’ properties will affect our mood, but a degree of acceptance to our new routines – or lack thereof – is required. “I think it’s important not to medicalise our responses, whether emotional or physical, and of course these are intertwined,” says Johnstone, keen to emphasise that currently feeling all-over-the-place does not indicate a mental health problem: “Personally, I would be more concerned about someone who is not feeling alarmed by the threats we are facing.”
The notion of ‘collective trauma’ may also be useful in understanding how we are responding to current stress. Research has shown that, after natural disasters like earthquakes, similar psychological and physiological responses are observed not just in those who have been directly exposed to the source, but also in wider society. There is potential comfort to be found, however perverse it seems, in the shared meaning we can attach to our distress. It isn’t abstract; it is very, very real. Just as real is our natural ability to adapt, strive and rebound. How we feel now is not a prophecy for how we will feel forever. Even if it may take a while to shake off the nap habit.
Coronavirus coverage from WIRED
😓 How did coronavirus start and what happens next?
❓ The UK’s job retention furlough scheme, explained
💲 Can Universal Basic Income help fight coronavirus?
🎲 Best video and board games for self-isolating couples