Sleep has become elusive for many as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, according to new research from Arizona State University’s Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation.

Q: As a sleep scientist, what, if anything, has been the most surprising thing about how people’s sleeping habits have changed during the course of the pandemic? And on that same note, what’s been the most troubling?

A: We originally hypothesized that there would be large shifts in sleep patterns for the majority of the population characterized mostly by delayed bedtimes and increases in naps. Indeed that appeared to occur for many individuals. However, there were two changes that I found surprising. 

First, the large presence of “sleep opportunists.” I found it unsettling to see how many people prior to the pandemic had incredibly restricted sleep opportunities — increasing their personal risk for accidents as well as those around them — and only after experiencing quarantine, huge shifts in daily routine and possibly unemployment were they afforded better sleep opportunities. The experience of these persons reflects a serious public health and economic problem in our global society that we must address as we tackle our current and post-pandemic world. These individuals are likely vulnerable, disadvantaged and at risk for poor health and economic outcomes. 

Second, the substantial sleep deterioration experienced by one of four individuals in our sample — “sleep lost and fragmented” and “dysregulated and distressed.” Sleep disturbances can take on a life of their own independent of the acute event that may have instigated it. Thus, these persons may be at a greater risk for poor sleep health over the long term.