The time at home from the coronavirus crisis could be an opportunity to let our natural sleep rhythms take over, says a sleep psychologist.

A woman sleeping. (Photo: Unsplash)

AMES, Iowa: Overwhelmed hospitals, desolate schools, ghostly towns and self-isolation echo a campy horror flick, but an all too real one in the United States.

Companies are laying people off by the thousands and the service industry is teetering on the brink of collapse.

According to a recent poll by the University of Southern California, around 40 per cent of individuals feel anxiety about the pandemic, and more than half have been avoiding some or all other people.

As a psychologist who focus mostly on how the sleep-wake cycle impacts our day-to-day social lives, this period makes me think of one thing we can do, especially for those of us at home: That is to sleep.

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SLEEP IS ESSENTIAL

This reversible state of disengagement with the world is one of the most important protective and restorative factors in human life. Slumber is essential for thinking clearly and staying upbeat during any time.

Moreover, sleep is indispensable for maintaining immunological function, which is key to preventing and recovering from infectious diseases like COVID-19. 

Losing sleep makes people more susceptible to viral infections, and it undermines recovery from the common cold as well as more serious conditions. For this lethally stealthy bug, it may be even more important.

Woman working on her laptop

(Photo: Unsplash/Tran Mau Tri Tam)

Unfortunately, it is exactly during times of social uncertainty and anxiety, when we need sleep the most, that it is most disrupted.

Anxiety over the future and fear for health of loved ones threaten calm nights and impinge on sleep by increasing hyper-arousal and rumination – reactions known to intensify insomnia.

Isolation from regular social rhythms and natural light will further mess with our body clock, confusing us about when we are supposed to feel tired and when to perk up.

SLEEP AT THE DAWN OF COVID-19

Most Americans are not meeting this crisis well-rested. Research we have conducted over the past few years using data from the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention on hundreds of thousands of Americans suggests the smart phone age has led to substantial deterioration in both duration and quality of sleep.

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A case in point, a recent analysis my team conducted suggests that over the past five years, millions more Americans report sleeping problems.

The psychological toll is not too far away, but it will register most forcefully after the infection rates start to decline. Once the pandemic peaks and the physical damage to bodies start to wane, only then will the full consequences of this pandemic on our well-being be apparent.

Inevitable increases in psychological complaints, suicide, and substance use disorders need to be anticipated and mitigated now. Recall that after the global financial crisis of 2008, there were millions more people with health and psychological problems in both US and Europe.

HIDDEN OPPORTUNITIES

So how to go about protecting our sleep? Besides the threats and challenges, this time actually provides hidden opportunities as well. When was the last time that the majority of any population spent this amount of time at home?

Besides connecting with those closest to us, many of us can sleep in and organise lives in ways that suit our biological ticker. Larks can go to bed earlier and owls can snooze in.

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Families can synchronise their meal and play routines in new ways, honoring the time of their internal clock (what chrono-biologists call the “circadian phase”).

For most of our history we slept with one another when our bodies told us too, not by ourselves and only when work allowed.

This may be an unprecedented opportunity to embrace a basic human need to switch off on a regular basis, helping human bodies fight the wars only those bodies know how.

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Zlatan Krizan is Professor of Psychology at Iowa State University. This commentary first appeared in The Conversation.

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