Why you're doing less but sleeping more during the coronavirus pandemic

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  • During quarantine and stay-at-home orders related to the coronavirus pandemic, some people are reporting sleeping better and more, despite being more sedentary and stressed.
  • Experts say deep sleep allows the brain to process the overload of information and emotions, and that one overarching stressor may also be easier for the brain to compartmentalise than a million smaller worries.
  • Even if you’re less physically active, the emotional and mental stress of the coronavirus can cause the body to tire in the same way.
  • But it is possible to sleep too much, and staying in bed too long can be a sign of depression.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

When Andrea Huspeni is stressed, she either lays awake until 4 am before her body finally shuts down her mind, or wakes up at 2 am and stares at the ceiling until day breaks.

Not anymore.

“With the coronavirus, despite me being extremely stressed and feeling like I have no control over anything, I have been sleeping really well,” the New York City entrepreneur told Insider.

Juliana Lew, a recruiting coordinator in Ypsilanti, Michigan, is also getting restful sleep these days. Pre-coronavirus, she typically slept from 11 pm to 6 am; now she’s conked out from 10 pm to 7 am. “Wild!” she said.

According to sleep and stress experts, however, the phenomenon – though certainly not experienced by everyone – has several possible explanations, not all positive. Insider talked to them about what could be going on, and how to know if your excess sleep is problematic.

Sleep is when our brains process new information and emotions

Lew has a theory for her better sleep: “There is a high volume of emotional and intellectual information to process each day, and I’m finding that I feel tired and go to bed earlier than in ‘normal’ life,'” she said. As a result, she wakes up more capable of weathering the next day’s challenges.

“It’s like my brain knows what’s best for itself, and sends me to bed for my own good,” Lew said.

She’s on to something. Michael Grandner, director of the University of Arizona’s sleep and health research program, told Insider sleep, and particularly deep dream-producing sleep, is when the brain tries to process, organise, integrate, and generally make sense of new information and emotions, which there’s no shortage of now.

“We’re dumped in this new environment and we’re trying to figure out our place in it,” he said.

Coronavirus-related stress is streamlined

Woman squeezing stress ballChutima Chaochaiya/Shutterstock

There also seems to be something about the way our brains are processing this particular stressor that can lead to deep sleep, rather than insomnia.

“In your normal day-to-day life, stress is coming from many things and you’re task-switching and being pulled in a thousand directions, whereas now you’re being pulled very hard in one direction,” Brian St. Pierre, director of performance nutrition for Precision Nutrition, where he’s written extensively about the effect of both good and bad stress on the body, told Insider.

In other words, all those relatively minor thoughts – “What if I bomb tomorrow’s presentation?” “I need to send mum a birthday card.” “Who’s in charge of carpool tomorrow?” – that typically keep people tossing and turning are either eliminated (no more carpools!) or overshadowed with one big, massive thought: How will coronavirus affect my family, and the world?

Because the brain isn’t good at multi-tasking, St. Pierre said, it may prefer that sort of streamlined anxiety and allow you to drift off.

Mental and emotional stress tax the body just like physical stress

With schools, workplaces, transit systems, and gyms shut down, many Americans are more sedentary than before, theoretically leaving them with excess energy that could keep them up at night.

But that’s not necessarily happening because while they may not be as physically taxed, they’re more emotionally and mentally taxed. To the body, it’s all the same – and exhausting, St. Pierre, said.

“Everyone’s [stress] bucket is finite,” he said, leading people to conk out from the news cycle, not their cycling class.

St. Pierre recommended people who find their stress buckets near full with mental and emotional stress find rejuvenative, not depleting, ways to move, like gentle yoga or nature walks.

The key is finding the sweet spot because exercise can be a healthy coping mechanism, and, if not overdone, keeps your immune system up.

One study, for instance, found that people who went for a daily brisk walk for 12 to 15 weeks reported half the sick days as their couch potato counterparts.

“Use common sense and assess how your workout makes you feel after,” Dr. Jebidiah Ballard, an emergency medicine physician, previously told Insider. “Are you more energised or do you feel wiped out? This is probably not the time to train for a personal best on a 10K.”

Alarm clock man sleepingShutterstock/Ko BackpackoThe way you wake up sets the tone for the day.

Your schedule can make a big difference

There’s also the practical explanation for more sleep these days: Many people are going to bed earlier, sleeping later, or both, in part because they don’t have to allow time for the logistics of commuting to and from work and school.

“The whole idea of the workday – starting at the same time and place – is a 20th century phenomenon,” Grandner said. Now, people are allowing their bodies to fall into a more natural rhythm.

The question is whether they or their organisations can learn from what Grandner calls this huge “natural experiment.” Will people telecommute more now that they’re learning the tools to do so? Will schools finally adjust start times to better align with teen’s sleep cycles? Will managers cancel meetings that really can be replaced by email?

“It depends on how much control people end up having,” Grandner said.

Sleeping too much can be a bad thing

Of course, not everyone is sleeping better these days, and even many of those who are spending more time in bed may be hurting their health more than helping it.

Some people, for instance, are “bingeing” on the freedom, Grandner said – staying up late, sleeping until noon, missing important sunshine, and feeling drowsy all day. “They’re like a high-schooler going off to college for the first time,” he said.

While understandable during a chaotic time, a complete lack of consistency can lead to insomnia and comes with other issues, like a tendency to overeat unhealthy foods, Grandner said.

Other people may be using their beds as an unhealthy escape. “If you’re spending lots of time in bed because you don’t want to get up, you don’t want to deal, you don’t know what to do with yourself, all these things can backfire,” Grandner said. Not wanting to get out of bed is also a symptom of depression.

That’s why he and other sleep experts recommend keeping a schedule as best you can, trying to reserve the bedroom – or even just an area of the bed – for sleep, limiting screen time close to bed, and avoid long or later-in-the-day naps.

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