Mental Stressors from the Pandemic Resulted in Sleep Loss, Study Finds

A person lays in bed with a pillow curled around their head.
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Key Takeaways

  • A new study found that mental health issues at the beginning of the pandemic impacted how long a person was able to sleep.
  • Experiencing poor sleep can increase anxiety levels, creating a negative cycle.
  • To combat sleep disruptions, experts recommend avoiding screens, having a consistent bedtime, and keeping a nighttime routine.

Have you ever spent the night lying in bed, unable to sleep, or waking up constantly due to something nagging at you? Or maybe you’ve found yourself overwhelmed and sleeping longer than usual but still tired the next day? If you've experienced one or both of these scenarios, odds are, you’ve experienced stress.

Collectively, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused the world to experience additional stress over the past year and a half. The question is, how has this increased stress impacted individuals’ sleep, and what can you do about it?

The Research

A recent study from Frontiers in Neuroscience looked at the impact of pandemic stress on sleep quality and length. Researchers surveyed 909 pairs of twins between March 26, 2020 and April 5, 2020. 

“Some people with anxiety are too awake, while others with depression or low energy may be too inclined into the sleepy direction,” says Alex Dimitriu, MD, double board-certified in psychiatry and sleep medicine and founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine. 

“My anxious or stressed patients will often have what I call ‘battlefield sleep’—how you would sleep if you were on a battlefield,” adds Dimitriu. “It would take longer to fall asleep, sleep would be light and easily interrupted, and you would wake too early—after about five to six hours—the bare minimum required to survive and keep going.”

Though researchers don’t compare pre-pandemic stress levels, study after study has shown that mental health issues have increased since the pandemic began. An October 2020 study showed that people aged 13 to 16 experienced a mental health decline due to the pandemic. As for adults, a December 2020 study found 42% of U.S. adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, compared to 11% between January and June 2019. 

Alex Dimitriu, MD

Some people with anxiety are too awake, while others with depression or low energy may be too inclined into the sleepy direction.

— Alex Dimitriu, MD

Feelings of stress itself have increased throughout the pandemic. A March 2021 study found that 48% of U.S. parents reported higher stress levels than before the pandemic began. “Stress and anxiety can mask the feelings of sleepiness and make us more alert at a time when we ideally would want to relax. Stress might contribute to shortened and more fragmented sleep with lower sleep quality,” says Frida Rångtell, PhD, sleep educator and science advisor at Sleep Cycle

Turning back to sleep—as many people have tried to do this year—the same study had similar results to Frontiers in Neuroscience’s research, with 35% of participants reporting sleeping less and 31% reporting sleeping more than desired.

“Stress—both occasional and chronic—is one of the most common triggers that may disrupt one’s sleep,” says Alex Savy, a certified sleep science coach and the founder of Sleeping Ocean.

“When experiencing stress, the brain releases cortisol. Cortisol, in turn, affects the nervous system, makes the brain mode alert, and can alter one’s sleep architecture. Cortisol can suppress the production of melatonin, the hormone that peaks in response to darkness and cues the body to sleep.” 

Even people who reported sleeping more than desired during the pandemic weren't necessarily “more rested.” As Savy explains, the appearance of cortisol can also lead to less time spent in the restorative phase of sleep

“Good sleep is not only about the number of sleep hours we clock in. It is also about timing, how regular we keep our sleep times, and the quality of sleep. If our sleep is fragmented and we wake up or almost wake up very often, the quality of sleep can be lower, even if we get enough hours of sleep,” Rångtell.

Unsurprisingly, poor or shortened sleep can add to your mental health issues. A 2019 study found that a sleepless night can increase anxiety levels by up to 30%.

Of participants in the recent twin study, 32.9% reported a decrease in the quality of sleep, and 29.8% reported sleeping more. Individually reported mental health issues were linked to a change in sleep.

How To Improve Sleep Habits 

There’s no getting around it: Sleeping when you’re stressed is not an easy task. This may happen more often than not during the pandemic or other chaotic periods of life. Fortunately, there are sleep expert-backed techniques that can help you get longer, better sleep.

Go to bed and wake up at a consistent time

Yes, one perk of being an adult is getting to set your own bedtime, but when it constantly fluctuates, your sleep may suffer. “This ‘trick’ is old as time, and yet we often neglect it due to our busy schedules,” says Savy. “Going to bed and waking up at consistent hours is one of the most effective ways to improve one’s sleep quality.”

Alex Savy, Certified Sleep Science Coach

Going to bed and waking up at consistent hours is one of the most effective ways to improve one’s sleep quality.

— Alex Savy, Certified Sleep Science Coach

Create a Nighttime Routine

Form associations between calming activities and getting ready for bed. This can be habits such as reading a nice book, writing in a journal, or taking a bath, says Rångtell. 

Avoid Screens Before Bed

Yes, it’s tempting to scroll on your phone late at night. Unfortunately, doing so can make it take longer to fall asleep and shorten your time in REM sleep. Try to spend the last 30 minutes before bed without screens, says Savy.

Take Time to Process Your Emotions Before Lying in Bed

When possible, take time during the day to unpack your feelings through habits such as reflection or meditation, says Rångtell.

If You Can’t Fall Asleep, Get Out of Bed

It can be tempting to stay in bed while endlessly struggling to enter a deep sleep. However, Rångtell recommends leaving for a bit to do something else “such as stretching, reading a book or meditating, until you’re ready to try falling asleep again,” she says. “This will help to enforce the association between lying in bed and sleep in your brain.”

What This Means For You

Stress is a normal part of life, especially during such a traumatic situation as the pandemic. Try to implement some of these expert-backed routines if you think stress is impacting your sleep or to simply get ahead of possible disruptions.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Magson NR, Freeman JY, Rapee RM, Richardson CE, Oar EL, Fardouly J. Risk and protective factors for prospective changes in adolescent mental health during the COVID-19 pandemicJ Youth Adolesc. 2021;50(1):44-57. doi:10.1007/s10964-020-01332-9

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