Binge-watching till dawn, playing endless online games, video chats until the sun rises, or simply staring into darkness while everyone around is in deep slumber… wakeful nights are no longer about once in a while but too often for comfort.
As India navigates the ninth week of the nationwide lockdown that pushed millions of people into the confines of their homes, distress and anxiety are on the rise, manifesting primarily in the form of sleep disorders. Medical experts claim the number of consultation calls over erratic sleep cycles have shot up since the country went into lockdown on March 25 to stem the spread of COVID-19.
“People are living with many uncertainties and insecurities. Worrying about health, job, and financial security and managing household chores alongside office deadlines, all the while working from home are among the factors influencing our sleep quality,” said Dr. Gulshan Kumar, a neurophysiologist at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS). The Bangalore-based medical institution has also seen an increase in the number of queries related to sleep issues like insomnia since the lockdown started, he said.
While many complain of insomnia and sleep deprivation, there are those like Gaganjot Kaur who have both insomnia and hypersomnia. The 33-year-old said she cannot remember even one night of restful sleep in the last two months. Most nights she can barely get three hours of sleep, but there have also been days when she’s slept for 10 hours at a stretch and still woke up feeling unrested. “It’s not like I am consciously trying to stay awake. I find myself up at three in the morning for no reason. It’s almost like there is a disconnect between my body and its need for sleep,” the Delhi University philosophy professor said. She said she had been diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) a few years ago and was seeing a therapist. But her condition aggravated in the last two months. Gaganjot, who enrolled in a Ph.D. course recently, said she was initially thankful for the lockdown, assuming it would give her a lot of time to focus on her research work. But as it kept getting extended, she found her mind inundated with panic-inducing thoughts.
“I think about hundreds of things when I lie awake in bed, but I immediately start spiraling when I think of my career. I constantly feel I am not being productive enough. Another thing I cannot stop worrying about is my parents, who are extremely vulnerable to the coronavirus infection,” Ganganjot, who lives with husband and sister-in-law, said.
The “new anxieties” combined with the lack of enough sleep have started affecting not just her professional productivity, but also her relationships. “Work-wise I am not able to achieve even half of what I aim for. Besides, I find myself snapping and feeling irritated at my family members,” she said.
What has changed?
According to mental health expert Prakriti Poddar, carefully cultivated routines over the years have gone for a toss and the stress is natural. “In times like these when everybody is at home, and routines have changed, people might feel low, and even depressed, creating a sleep crisis. “Stress and worry have an intense impact on the sleep cycle,” she said.
“Research confirms that there is a strong link between learning, memory, and sleep. During sleep, nerve cell connections in the brain are strengthened and this enhances the brain’s abilities to stabilize and retain memories.
“With a disrupted sleep cycle or not enough sleep, it is very difficult for the brain to stabilize neural connections and consolidate memory effectively,” Kumar explained. A sound sleep of seven-nine hours is an important aspect of recovery, added Poddar.
The Do’s and The Don’ts
Doctors recommend physical activity, yoga, and maybe some music to calm the mind and body. Both Kumar and Poddar advise against ignoring irregular sleeping patterns, which can affect cognitive abilities, including learning and memory retention, over a long period.
The list of don’ts includes using electronic devices like mobile phones and laptops before sleeping and caffeinated drinks such as colas, alcohol, coffee, and tea, particularly in the evening.
“The bedtime and wake time should be consistent from day to day, including on weekends. Regular vigorous exercise for 20-30 minutes during the day promotes a good night’s sleep. If despite all this, an individual is not able to sleep within 20 minutes, they should move out of the bed and perform some light, non-stimulating activity like reading a book and wait until the feeling of drowsiness sets in,” said Vivek Nangia, director, pulmonology, Medical Critical Care & Sleep Disorders, Fortis Hospital, New Delhi.
This is an excerpt from an article published under the same title by Outlook India, authored by Manik Gupta and Trisha Mukherjee. Read here.