Overcoming the psychological impact of Sleep in the time of a Pandemic

By: Leslie Ruiz M.S. Doctoral Candidate Albizu University &

Dr. Isaac Tourgeman Assistant Professor Albizu University/ Clinical Neuropsychologist Design Neuroscience Center


During such unprecedented times, feelings of anxiety, stress, and lack of control are on the rise. Recognizing how these feelings not only affect our mood, but our sleep is imperative to our health. The COVID-19 pandemic has presented us with an overload of information and uncertainty that has made even sleep stressful. Recently, an increased number of people have shared persistent sleep disturbances or sleep dissatisfaction.

 While the diagnosis of a sleep disorder requires a multi-dimensional assessment, the significance attributed to sleep disruption is more frequent when individuals are presented with adverse events. Currently, our arousal is increased beyond normal throughout the day with fear, anxiety, or other negative emotions caused by the novel Coronavirus. As this increased arousal continues through the night, there is excessive activation of the brain resulting in deregulation. The concern then becomes how our body’s deregulated sleep cycle begins to affect us. Cognitive distortions, panic, and in extreme cases, even hallucinations may develop as this arousal becomes more deregulated. As a result, persistent sleep disruption develops, and the ability to fall asleep at the desired time and awaken at a conventionally acceptable time becomes increasingly more difficult.

In an attempt to relieve excessive sleepiness or fatigue throughout the day, one may take frequent naps or consume high amounts of caffeine to regulate this pattern. However, an alteration of the body’s circadian rhythm develops. The circadian rhythm is essentially the body’s internal clock and is responsible for the alignment between our physical environment and stabilizing sleep/wakefulness. The body’s internal clock is regulated by light, melatonin, and activity. When the body’s internal clock is irregular, the results are immediate and long-term negative effects. 


The Relationship Between Sleep Deprivation and Mental Health 

There is no denying the negative effects sleep deprivation has on the body and mental health. Sleep disorders are often linked to various physical health problems. These changes in sleep patterns interfere with the ability of healthy aging and development.

Persistent patterns of poor or irregular sleep habits contribute to a vicious cycle of stress about sleep and incidences of stress-related symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension, or gastrointestinal discomfort. More importantly, the risk of emerging psychiatric disorders may become more prevalent.

Disorders such as Insomnia can lead to a progression of a first depressive episode.

Significant dysfunction or impairments in social, occupational, or other areas of functioning also develop. Consequences of persistent Insomnia include poor concentration, reduced productivity, increased anxiety, irritableness, and other reduced quality of life factors. Other grave consequences of Insomnia disorder can include a high risk of substance abuse, coronary heart disease, diabetes, or other chronic pain conditions. 


Good Sleep Habits

While our lives are currently being impacted, maintaining our sleep quality is imperative for our psychological and physical health. Maintaining a regulated sleep cycle helps reduce negative physiological responses caused by stress and fear. Additionally, sleep plays a significant role in our cognitive process. In a few words, a good night’s sleep improves all aspects of our health. Establishing a good sleep routine helps preserve a sense of consistency during challenging times while facilitating our eventual transition back to normalcy. Although six to eight hours of sleep per night is the recommended amount by experts, the amount of sleep an individual may need varies. The following are activities and recommendations to promote a healthy sleep cycle:

  • Decrease your caffeine intake throughout the day. This may include limiting your “cafecito” breaks to mornings or early afternoons to avoid unwanted evening arousal. 
  • Avoid excessive napping. Being home all day makes it difficult to not take more naps to pass the time or relieve sleepiness. Long daytime naps can obstruct nighttime sleep. Attempting to “catch up on sleep” during the weekend also results in disrupting the sleep cycle. This may lead to “sleep hangovers” where an individual may feel worse upon awakening due to too much irregular sleep. Avoid substances and sleep aids. The use of alcohol or other popular antihistamines to induce drowsiness results in non-restorative sleep. Consequently, they only produce a temporary solution and can be habit-forming. 
  • Create a comfortable bedroom environment. If possible, invest in a mattress, pillows, or sheets to improve your comfort level. Additionally, maintaining the bedroom at a comfortable temperature, reducing noise, curtains to keep the room dark, and keeping the bedroom clean and de-cluttered will make relaxing easier.
  • Wind down. Dedicate the hour before bed as a time for you to “wind-down” physically and mentally. Avoid stimulating activities and engage in relaxing sleep rituals to prepare the body and mind for bed. Take a warm bath or shower, read a light or even a boring book, listen to relaxing music, and relax with some breathing exercises or aromatherapy. The more ritualistic these bedtime activities become, the mind and body will eventually begin to associate them with preparing for sleep. 
  • Reserve your bed only for sleep. Since nightmares may be more prevalent due to the stress induced by the pandemic, it is important to only maintain a link between the bed and sleep. This means avoiding screen time or other activities such as studying, working, or reading stimulating material while in bed. 
  • Only go to bed if you’re ready to sleep. Often, individuals may lie in bed, tossing and turning for a significant amount of time before falling asleep. This increases anxiety about having to fall asleep and associating the bed with an unpleasant sleep pattern. Instead, get up and engage in some relaxation exercises such as some light reading or breathing exercises until you’re ready to go back to bed.
  • Create a sleep schedule. Due to the majority of our day being spent at home, it might be tempting to stay up late and sleep in. Prioritize a consistent sleep schedule with an appropriate bedtime and wake-up time.
  • Stay active. A daytime schedule with activities to engage in can help maintain a sleep schedule. Integrating steady routines such as brushing your teeth, changing clothes, safely going for a walk, or doing in-home workouts provide steady body habits throughout the day. 
  • Manage your news intake. It has become nearly impossible to avoid constant Coronavirus updates or related news. Structuring appropriate times for news information and browsing will reduce an overload of anxiety or stressful media implications.


When to Contact a Professional 

While you do not have to be in a crisis to seek professional help, if you or someone you know is having difficulty coping with life stressors, a mental health disorder, or feeling suicidal, it is important to seek help immediately. Know that you are not alone, and mental health professionals are available to assist with effective treatment. 

At Design Neuroscience Center we have integrated telehealth services across all our specialties to meet the needs of current times and ensure patient safety. For more information, call us 305-653-5155, or visit www.dncneurology.com/


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