After Radio 4 presenter the Reverend Richard Coles tweeted about his poor sleep recently, his post received 34,000 likes and more than 3,000 comments.
Many people confirmed that they, too, were struggling to get a good night’s rest.
In fact, new research, published this month by King’s College London, found that nearly two-thirds of people in the UK have been sleeping badly since lockdown began.
In a poll of more than 2,000 people aged 16 to 75, half said their sleep has been more disturbed than usual and 40 per cent slept fewer hours a night on average, while 30 per cent slept for longer but felt less rested.
Bobby Duffy, a professor of public policy at King’s College London, who conducted the study, says the cause is fear of the virus, lockdown stresses and financial and employment uncertainty.
New research published this month by King’s College London, found that nearly two-thirds of people in the UK have been sleeping badly since lockdown began
‘If our finding can be extrapolated, nearly two-thirds of the UK public report some negative impact on their sleep,’ he says.
Young people have been worst affected, the survey found, perhaps because they are more likely to suffer from hypersomnia — sleeping longer but without feeling rested — says Dr Ivana Rosenzweig, head of the Sleep and Brain Plasticity Centre at King’s College London. They are more likely to have hypersomnia because their brains are still developing.
However, oversleeping is also a common reaction to stress.
‘Some people react to stress with oversleeping, others with insomnia,’ says Dr Rosenzweig. ‘Both groups suffer with daytime sleepiness, which means that sleep is not performing its restorative function.’
In most cases, hypersomnia — also linked with depression — will be temporary.
In a poll of more than 2,000 people aged 16 to 75, half said their sleep has been more disturbed than usual and 40 per cent slept fewer hours a night on average, while 30 per cent slept for longer but felt less rested
Many of our sleep problems have been caused by the way our brains are wired to deal with uncertainty, says Colin Espie, a professor of sleep medicine at the University of Oxford, who is researching patterns of sleep during the pandemic.
‘Sleep is our main coping strategy for situations of prolonged uncertainty,’ he says. ‘It regulates our emotions and helps us recover. But when there is genuine uncertainty, as with coronavirus, it is hard for the frontal cortex — which reasons things out — to switch off the brain’s threat centre.
‘This means it is more difficult to downgrade arousal levels in our brains, which can result in trouble getting to sleep. It also helps to explain why so many people are having vivid dreams.’
Being out of our normal routines will also have contributed to poor sleep, according to Dr Neil Stanley, an independent sleep expert.
‘Working from home, some people’s sleep patterns are all over the place,’ he says. ‘The medical definition of insomnia is poor sleep for three months, so people who haven’t slept well throughout lockdown will be feeling effects akin to a recognised sleep condition.’
And coming out of lockdown doesn’t mean sleep patterns will return to normal, he warns.
‘Just as we adjusted our routine and sleeping pattern to lockdown, we will now need to adjust as restrictions are lifted. Many people still feel a lot of anxiety.
‘Without enough sleep, you may experience low mood, lethargy, less resilience and more stress.’
Many of our sleep problems have been caused by the way our brains are wired to deal with uncertainty, says Colin Espie, a professor of sleep medicine at the University of Oxford, who is researching patterns of sleep during the pandemic
Sleep is also linked to memory, judgment — and immunity. It helps fight off viruses, as when we sleep our body makes T-cells that destroy them, Dr Stanley explains.
‘Exactly how much sleep you need is mostly determined by your genes. Most people need between seven and nine hours a night for optimal health.’
To improve your sleep, try to go to bed at the same time each night, exercise, eat three meals a day, don’t drink too much caffeine or alcohol and wind down before bedtime, says Dr Stanley.
‘Read, do yoga or distract your mind — and if you are stressed about coronavirus, don’t look at the news at night.
‘Find your natural sleep pattern — what time you are tired and when you wake without an alarm. You could then try to continue this after lockdown ends.’
If you can’t get to sleep, don’t panic, adds Professor Espie, who has put together new advice on how to get a good night’s sleep during the pandemic for the NHS mental health website (nhs.uk/ oneyou/every-mind-matters).
‘Don’t overthink it,’ he says. ‘Get up, read a book and feel confident you will get back to sleep. Once you learn to trust sleep, that’s when it comes most naturally.’
To take part in the Oxford University sleep study, go to tiny.cc/covidsleep