ScienceAugust 17, 2021

How Covid-19 messed with our sleep


Sleep Week: Been struggling with weird dreams and erratic sleep patterns since Covid-19 arrived? Dr Rosie Gibson, senior lecturer at the Sleep/Wake Research Centre, explains why you aren’t alone. 

All week, The Spinoff is tossing and turning through a range of perspectives on sleep – read more Sleep Week content here.

The Covid-19 pandemic dealt a time of rapid change and stress. Daily life, schedules, and society as we knew it underwent rapid unsolicited change during lockdown. Such changes challenged the social drivers for sleeping well. This is important because we know that maintaining healthy sleep is associated with waking physical and mental health. Sleep plays a vital role in supporting the body’s immune system. So, maintaining good sleep helps protect us against getting the virus as well as boosting our immune response to vaccinations. 

Research from around the world, including a survey from the Sleep/Wake Research Centre here in Aotearoa, has explored the impact of pandemic lockdowns on sleep and wellbeing. Here are some of the most common findings.  

Changed sleep schedules

Research has typically found that the sleep timing on workdays and free days became more similar than pre-lockdown estimates. We also tended to go to bed later and spend more time in bed during lockdown. However, the time actually spent asleep did not necessarily increase. These kinds of changes have been associated with the majority of us moving to working from home and within flexible hours. Changes to sleep schedules have also been associated with having less regular exposure to time cues which help keep our internal rhythm of sleep in-step with the 24/hour clock, including bright light and physical activity. 

Erratic sleep during lockdown

Around half of participants in research surveys reported that their sleep quality worsened during lockdown. Symptoms of insomnia (not being able to get to sleep or stay asleep) or erratic sleep were all more common than before the pandemic. Poorer sleep during lockdown has been associated with increased stress, fear, or anxiety. Such changes are similar to those reported in times of natural disaster or trauma and may be more pronounced in counties with greater disease outbreak. 

The relationship between poor sleep and mood is well defined and goes both ways. So disturbed sleep can lead us more susceptible to disturbed mood and vice versa. This chicken-and-egg situation can make it tricky to manage but there are some good resources concerning sleep’s relationship with anxiety and depression out there. Please consult a doctor if you feel your situation isn’t resolving naturally.

Bizarre dreams during lockdown

A common finding in our research as well as other studies has been that people had more frequent and intense dreams during lockdown. For example, some reported dream themes of disease, apocalypse, and personal protective equipment. A few explanations have been offered for these strange dream experiences. For example, dream content is often influenced by waking experiences, so it is not surprising that the appearance of the COVID-19 virus with its accompanying restrictions and deluge of associated media provided unusual fodder for our dreams. 

Also, the act of dreaming is considered to play an important role in regulating our emotions and strengthening learning and memory. The rapid changes in rules and restrictions presented a novel situation in which we all had to learn and adapt quickly. Fear of contracting the virus or anxiety around the implications of social isolation have been reported by many. So, it is an understandable response that dream activity would amp up to aid the processing of such a sudden change. Another explanation has also been proposed that, with simply spending more time in bed without alarms during lockdown, the opportunity to wake naturally from rapid eye movement (REM) sleep was more likely. As this is the period when dream activity is most likely, we were more prone to remember the dream.

Peaceful sleep during lockdown

Sleep didn’t always change for the worse. Some reported sleeping well during lockdown and these folks typically had better mood and less disrupted sleep timing compared to poor sleepers. Comments of more peaceful sleep involved having more control over life and work schedules as well as things like noise and the need to commute less likely to interfere with sleep. The ability to gain more peaceful sleep is likely reliant on the sleep and work patterns of the rest of the family living in the lockdown bubble at the time. Differences have been noted between age groups and living situations. For example, many noted the challenging nature of juggling sleep amongst working, caring for children or other family members, as well as keeping up with the news and social media all competing with time.  

Sleep lessons learned during lockdown

Findings from research concerning sleep and the pandemic provide an important reminder that sleep depends on many factors. While individual biology and behaviours are key, sleep is also driven at the social level. So, when our waking life changes so does our sleep. Pandemic-related sleep resources have been developed by the Sleep/Wake Research Centre and resonate with maintaining healthy sleep at all times. A few key tips are: 

Have regular sleeping and waking routines: Be consistent with bed and rise times and consider the timing of external time cues on sleep. For example when you are exposed to bright light, eating, or taking part in physical or social activity 

Keep the bedroom a “safe sleep” zone: Use the bedroom predominantly for sleeping. So consider lights, noise and temperature as well as the time and place you are working. Try to keep media and electronic devices out of the bedroom. If you cannot fall asleep in about 30 minutes, get out of bed for a little while before trying again.

Consider what and when you eat: Sleep plays an important role in metabolism. Going to bed after a heavy meal or feeling very hungry can impact our sleep. For example, rich or spicy foods might create indigestion. Consider how much and when you consume alcohol and caffeine. These can take a long time to process and interfere with our ability to get to sleep and sleep quality. 

Times of acute change or stress naturally affect sleep: Covid-19 lockdowns are going to affect us. Consider how your mood, social connections and exposure to media might interact with sleep or be triggers for unwanted dreams. Practicing relaxation or mindfulness can help manage stress and symptoms of sleep disturbance.

Recognise the sleep needs of others in your family or whānau: Sleep needs and timing vary with ageing so it is important to create a bubble which is supportive of everyone’s sleep as best as possible as this will facilitate greater wellbeing during the day. Consider signs of sleep disorders like sleep apnoea or chronic insomnia in yourself and others. Seek help from your doctor if needed.

Dr Rosie Gibson, PhD, is a senior lecturer at the Sleep/Wake Research Centre, Massey University. Her research focuses on sleep changes with ageing and dementia. She is also involved with projects associated with sleep and wellbeing during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Keep going!