Article image

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused severe sleep disruptions

The results of a recent survey indicate that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the sleep habits of at least half of adults. According to the study, sleep disruptions have led to an increase in self-reported levels of stress and medication use. 

Study lead author Dr. Rébecca Robillard is the co-director of the Sleep Laboratory in the School of Psychology at the University of Ottawa and the head scientist of the Sleep Research Unit at The Royal Institute of Mental Health Research.

In collaboration with nearly two dozen scientists from across North America, Dr. Robillard conducted an online survey of 5,525 Canadians during the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The pandemic is having a diverse impact on people’s sleep, with clinically meaningful sleep difficulties having undergone a sharp increase,” said Dr. Robillard. 

“We found that half of our participants showed signs of serious sleep problems during the pandemic. Specifically, we identified three different profiles of sleep changes: those who sleep more; those whose sleep schedule was pushed to later bed and wake-up times; and those who are getting less sleep than they did before the pandemic.”

Dr. Robillard said that significant changes in sleep patterns during the pandemic have not only affected sleep quality and quantity, but have also affected the psychological response that people are having to this unprecedented situation. 

“Compared to those who are sleeping more, those who have later sleep schedules or shorter sleep cycles showed increased symptoms of insomnia and worsening symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression.”

The survey results indicate that new sleep difficulties disproportionately affected women, individuals with families, and people with chronic illnesses. Sleep disruptions have also strongly impacted individuals with earlier wake-up times, higher stress levels, heavier alcohol use, and extra television exposure.

“We have seen an increase in the use of sleeping medications during the pandemic. Considering the known risks for the development of tolerance with these medications, this may forecast a surge in more complex chronic insomnia cases in the long run,” said Dr. Robillard.

“The large scale of sleep changes in response to the pandemic highlights the need for more accessible, yet tailored interventions to address sleep problems. Sleep and mental health issues are something to be expected with the current circumstances, but we never expected to see it hit this level. It is important to intervene to address the unique phenomenon that we are facing right now.”

Dr. Robillard recommends some simple habits that can improve sleeping patterns, such as getting up at the same time every morning, engaging in relaxing pre-sleep rituals such as reading, exercising regularly, and avoiding caffeine and alcohol within six hours of bedtime.

The study is published in the Journal of Sleep Research.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day