For years, I have made a point of keeping a regular sleep schedule. While working on my book, Why We Dream, I read reams of research about how sleep impacts nearly every aspect of our mental and physical health, and committed to practising good sleep hygiene. But my bedtime, over the past few days, has ranged from 9:30 pm to 3 am. I wake to the sound of birds chirping, anytime between five in the morning and noon; it takes a few moments to remember why I can’t hear traffic or shouting outside my window in Brooklyn. The coronavirus lockdown has upended everything about our daily lives, from how we work, socialize and eat to how and when we sleep.
The routines that help us set our internal clocks – from meetings and appointments to exercise and outdoor time – have dissolved. Meanwhile, anxiety – the enemy of sleep – is skyrocketing: in late March, half of British adults were experiencing high levels of anxiety, according to the Office for National Statistics, up from just 21 percent last year.
It’s no surprise that our sleep is suffering. In a recent survey, more than three-quarters of American adults – 77 percent – said that the pandemic had affected their sleep habits, with the majority, 58 percent, sleeping at least an hour less than usual. Prescriptions for sleeping pills are on the rise.
It’s a vicious cycle: in this vulnerable time, sleep is both more important and more elusive. Sleep and dreams play a crucial role in regulating our moods; we do important emotional work overnight, processing painful experiences and mentally rehearsing for stressful situations we might face the next day. Just one night of short sleep can create temporary problems including irritability, paranoia and anger in even the most psychologically sound. In a laboratory setting, people who see disturbing images are more upset by a second viewing if they stay awake in between sessions. Another study showed that tired people interpreted strangers’ expressions as more hostile than they really were: sleep deprivation makes us assume the worst. Chronic insomnia has been linked to depression and even suicidal thoughts.
But maybe the answer to Covid insomnia isn’t to try to replicate our old routines. For non-essential workers staying home, it’s an opportunity to rethink our sleep cycles and discover our bodies’ natural rhythms. Our sleep needs vary over the course of our lives, and the idea that we should sleep for eight consecutive hours is a relatively recent one. According to one historian, it dates only to around the 17th century, when artificial lighting made it possible to tinker with our sleep patterns. Anthropologists believe that our ancestors slept in shifts of a few hours at a time, using the time in between to talk about their dreams, relax or have sex.
Left to our own devices, we can fall back into this pattern. In the 1990s, psychiatrist Thomas Wehr moved a group of volunteers into an environment that was dark for 14 hours a day and encouraged them to sleep as much as they wanted. At first, they slept for an average of 11 hours a night, making up for the sleep debt they had incurred in their overly busy lives. But as the month-long experiment wore on, they settled into a rhythm: they would sleep for about four hours, wake up for one or two, and then go back to bed for another four.
With fewer demands on our time, we can afford to stay up late, sleep in or experiment with segmented sleep. Some of us already are. One in five Americans say they are actually sleeping more, not less, in quarantine. Electricity data shows that many of my fellow quarantined New Yorkers are turning on their lights later in the morning; our electricity use on weekdays has come to follow the same patterns as weekends. Maybe alarm clocks will be another Covid casualty.