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Sleep Disorders

Updated 03 June 2020

Have your sleep patterns become disrupted during lockdown? You’re not alone

The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown have caused disruption to our normal body clock. Researchers from South African universities investigated the effect this has on our daily routine, including sleep, work, anxiety and depression.

  • Worries around the pandemic has an effect on your quality and quantity of sleep
  • Stress and anxiety is a key "ruiner" of sleep
  • The knock-on effects of a week of poor quality sleep are numerous


As the new coronavirus continues to spread, so do stress, anxiety and depression. After all, millions of people across the world are concerned about job security and an increased workload, among many other things. News24 reports that calls to mental health and suicide helplines have more than doubled since March. And all of this worry around the pandemic can lead to poor quality or fragmented sleep.

In trying to gain a clearer picture of the situation, a team of researchers from the University of Cape Town (UCT), Wits and Rhodes universities investigated how the lockdown is affecting people’s daily routines, in terms of their lifestyle behavioural factors (sleep, physical activity, work, meal times, screen time etc.) and associations with anxiety and depression. To do this, one of the tools they used was an actogram, which, using a wrist-worn accelerometer, charts a person’s sleep patterns.

“What we know, however, is that in the absence of any other underlying medical condition or medication use, stress/anxiety is one of the chief 'ruiners' of sleep," explained Dr Dale Rae, head of the chronobiology and sleep laboratory in the Division of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine at UCT.

Our bodies’ internal clock loves rhythm and routine, said Rae, and healthy routines are therefore important to robust circadian rhythms – the natural internal process that manages most of the processes within our bodies, including the sleep-wake cycle, and repeats every 24 hours. When this rhythm is disrupted, we can experience sleep impairment, fatigue and a disturbed metabolism.

“Erratic bedtimes, wake-up times, sleep duration, mealtimes and other factors, contribute to circadian dysrhythmia [disruption to the body’s normal cycle], which may, in turn, result in short, poor-quality sleep. Just one week of such sleep has been shown experimentally to increase propensity for weight gain, alter immunity and promote insulin resistance.

“Add to this limited natural light exposure if a person does not get outdoors enough (especially in the morning) and excessive artificial light exposure after sunset (from our devices) and we further dampen our circadian rhythms. This makes it harder to be alert in the mornings and delays our natural bedtime,” added Rae.

Sleep pattern disruptions

The team found that with the lockdown, two things seem to have occurred:

  • Many people are initially experiencing longer nocturnal sleeping periods and some daytime napping.
  • Many people are shifting towards later bedtimes and later rise times.

The researchers suggest that in the absence of “societal time cues”, such as starting work at 08:00, people are, in fact, choosing sleep timing that is more in sync with their natural chronotype (having a preference for morning or evening activity). And, to a large extent, this is actually healthy behaviour that is associated with better sleep duration and quality.

“The trick post-lockdown is going to be recognising this and figuring out solutions moving forward to allow people the flexibility to sleep in sync with their natural circadian system,” Rae concluded.

Experiencing weird dreams during the pandemic?

Apart from disrupted sleep patterns, people have also reported experiencing unusual, vivid dreams, which can happen when we’re removed from our regular environment. An article by The Conversation reported on studies from China and the UK which revealed that many people are reporting a heightened state of anxiety, and are having shorter or more disturbed sleep during the pandemic. 

This is because, the article explains, ruminating about the pandemic, irrespective of whether it’s directly or as a result of the media, just before going to bed, can make it more difficult for us to get a good night’s sleep. More than this, sleep deprivation also causes an increase in the pressure for rapid eye movement (REM) sleep – a phase of sleep that may cause us to dream more vividly. When this happens, our next sleep opportunity becomes “so-called rebound REM sleep”, during which dreams are reportedly more emotional than usual.

Getting quality sleep during lockdown

If you find yourself feeling anxious and stressed during the pandemic, sleep psychologist Emerson Wickwire, an associate professor of psychiatry and medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, has some advice, as reported in a previous Health24 article

  • Get enough sleep. The AASM's bedtime calculator can help you identify your appropriate bedtime, based on when you need to wake up and your age.
  • Maintain a sleep routine. Try to stick to a regular bedtime and wake time, and try to skip naps.
  • Create a comfortable sleep environment: Make sure your bedroom is separated from your workspace. Use an eye mask and try a white noise machine to block noise and distractions.
  • Turn off your electronics one hour before bedtime. 
  • Stay connected with supportive friends, family and colleagues who can put your worries into perspective.

If you're feeling anxious or depressed and feel like you need help, you can reach SADAG on their 24-hour helpline: 0800 456 789. For a suicide emergency, dial 0800 567 567. 

 

Ask the Expert

Sleep disorders expert

Dr Alison Bentley is a general practitioner who has consulted in sleep medicine and sleep disorders, in both adults and children of all ages, for almost 30 years. She also researches and publishes on a number of sleep-related topics both in formal research journals and lay publications including as editor of Sleep Matters, an educational newsletter on sleep disorders for doctors.

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