Mass social distancing and social isolation to prevent the spread of a deadly disease, along with technological tools that allow social communication and continued work and school, is an unprecedented situation.
The current reality of most people’s lives during the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to induce or exacerbate sleep problems, though it may also present some with an opportunity to improve sleep, wrote Ellemarije Altena, PhD, of the University of Bordeaux (France), and her colleagues in a recent research review in the Journal of Sleep Research.
The review was conducted by a task force of the European Academy for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia. The European CBT-I Academy is an initiative of the European Insomnia Network to promote implementation and dissemination of treatment.
After discussing the known effects of stress, confinement, and altered schedules on sleep, the authors present recommendations on ways to manage sleep problems such as insomnia in the general public and potentially encourage people to take advantage of the opportunity to align their schedules with their natural circadian rhythms. Physicians may find the recommendations helpful in advising patients with sleep problems related to the COVID-19 emergency.
“Being forced to stay at home, work from home, do homeschooling with children, drastically minimize outings, reduce social interaction or work many more hours under stressful circumstances, and in parallel manage the attendant health risks, can have a major impact on daily functioning and nighttime sleep,” Dr. Altena and colleagues wrote.
There may also be a lag time in physicians hearing about changes in sleep or sleeping problems from patients, said Krishna M. Sundar, MD, FCCP, medical director of the Sleep-Wake Center at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. “There may actually be some improvement in sleep durations given that most folks are working from home with more time with family and less work-related stress,” he said in an interview. “In terms of sleep or other effects on worsening of psychiatric problems, it is still not clear what the overall effects are going to be.”
Although daylight has the biggest impact on regulating circadian rhythms, artificial light, meal times, diet, and amount of physical activity can also have an influence. Negative effects on sleep can result from both excessively high activity levels, such as stress and work overload, or excessively low levels, such as from depression or confinement, the authors note.
The current situation also opens the door to interactions between stress, sleep, anxiety, and risk of PTSD. “Those sensitive to stress-related sleep disruption are more likely to develop chronic insomnia,” which, in combination with a major stressor, is a risk factor for PTSD, the authors write. They note that 7% of Wuhan residents, the city in China where the virus appears to have originated, particularly women, reported PTSD symptoms after the COVID-19 outbreak, and anxiety was highest in those under age 35 years and those who followed news about the disease for more than 3 hours a day.
Better sleep quality and fewer early morning awakenings, however, appeared to be protective against PTSD symptoms. The authors note the value of physical exercise, cognitive interventions, and relaxation techniques, including meditation, for reducing stress and milder symptoms of PTSD.
“Some patients are sleeping a bit better because of the pace of things has slowed down a bit,” said Anne C. Trainor, a nurse practitioner and instructor in the neurology department’s sleep disorders program at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, who was not involved in the study. “Keeping a regular schedule for sleeping and eating, getting exercise daily – preferably in sunlight and not just before bedtime – and using relaxation or mindfulness practice and cognitive interventions to help manage anxiety” were the key takeaways from this review, Ms. Trainor said in an interview.