Is the Coronavirus Disrupting Your Sleep? – A Behavioral Sleep Expert Tells Us Why

Philip Gehrman, PhD

Philip Gehrman, PhD

Is the Coronavirus Disrupting Your Sleep? – A Behavioral Sleep Expert Tells Us Why

Do you find yourself sleeping less or sleeping more during this pandemic? Has the inability to carry on your normal routine affected your sleep patterns? If so, Philip Gehrman, PhD, a clinical psychologist and behavioral sleep medicine expert at the University of Pennsylvania explains that this is not unusual.

Why are some people experiencing changes in their sleep patterns?

Most of us are coping with higher levels of stress due to the coronavirus threat and current containment strategies. We have had to change how we lead our daily lives, everything from whom we see, how we eat and exercise to how we communicate. Research has shown that disruptions in sleep are one of the first things to happen when an increase in stress occurs.

What are some of the contributing factors?

Many people have lost their jobs and others have had to put their careers on hold, which is resulting in a loss of structure. Some may have too much time on their hands causing them to think or worry too much. For those people who are still working, they are generally doing so from home, maybe even for the first time. These people are trying to manage their job functions while juggling the demands of a household and often children who are home from school. All of these factors can contribute to increased levels of stress and sleep issues.

"Research has shown that disruptions in sleep are one of the first things to happen when an increase in stress occurs"How has this affected healthcare and other essential workers?

Healthcare and essential workers are dealing with the risk that comes with performing their jobs, daily. Some may be experiencing a chronic sense of trauma. This can certainly cause or exacerbate sleep problems.

What is happening, biologically speaking, to sleep cycles in our current environment?

We tend to have our own body clock, or circadian rhythm, that regulates feelings of sleepiness and wakefulness over a given 24-hour period. We tend to sleep best if we follow our internal clocks. This is why we hear about morning people and night owls. At this time, many people may not be in sync with their body clocks or their sleeping patterns may be variable. This is why some may be experiencing less than optimal sleep.

What can people do to help minimize the effects that the pandemic may be having on our sleep?

If people are having difficulty following their body clock or keeping a consistent sleep schedule, they can help offset the potential negatives by trying to sleep 7-8 hours a day regardless of what time they fall asleep; or, at least the number of hours they were accustomed to before the pandemic. Also, taking proactive steps to mitigate stress may have a positive impact on sleep. There are a number of remote resources available to help with stress management and sleep issues: online, hotlines and Telehealth services. 

How has COVID-19 and confinement affected your research work and that of your team?

Our work has been affected, like many people, by the coronavirus and confinement, largely because we can’t meet with and interview prospective patients for our research. We are doing our best to manage this, however, by conducting pre-screenings of patients by video and it’s working well. In fact, we may introduce this process after confinement to help cut down on the number of in-person meetings for patients.