Psychology Today: Sleep researcher Colin A Espie, PhD, writes that even in the midst of catastrophe, sleep has restorative power that enables people to thrive.
It’s hard to overstate how the upheaval over the past 18 months has affected mental health, including sleep. For example, roughly 40 percent of Americans have reported symptoms of anxiety and depression during the pandemic, which is up significantly from 2019. While sleep can help regulate our mental health, good sleep can be difficult to achieve, even in the best of times. During the pandemic, it’s become even harder. In an August 2021 survey of over 2,000 Americans half of respondents said their sleep has been disrupted during the pandemic. These disruptions have created a vicious cycle of poor sleep at night and worsening mental health during the day.
Even if we haven’t personally contracted the virus, or don’t feel we’ve been directly impacted by the disease, its shockwaves can be felt by nearly everyone. Professional uncertainty, financial challenges, and family stress are just a few ways in which the virus has triggered our brain to be on high alert. Unfortunately, for many of us, our brains remain there. As a result, our days are filled with the activation of uncertainty and hyperarousal, which makes it hard to unwind when it comes time to sleep. In addition, many of our lifestyle patterns—when we go to bed, when we get up, when our workdays begin and end, how our weekends are structured—have changed during the pandemic. All of those things affect our sleep because our circadian rhythms require pattern and regularity.
In 2020, I and a group of researchers from around the world formed the International COVID Sleep Study (ICOSS) with the goal of researching the pandemic’s effects on sleep. We established a systematic approach to measuring sleep in all countries and then translated that measure into various languages so that we could pool data and look at wider patterns across cultures and nations. While some studies are ongoing, many have been completed and published.
The good news is that our research findings show that sleep hasn’t let us down. Even during the pandemic, the restorative properties of nature’s medicine have enabled us to perform our everyday mental functions such as paying attention, learning, accessing memory, and performing tasks. One study found that “social jetlag”—the difference between sleep time on workdays versus free days—has decreased during the pandemic. That means sleep-wake times are more consistent, perhaps because people are freer to choose their own sleep schedules.