StMU Research Scholars

Counting Sheep When You Can’t Sleep during COVID-19

The beginning of the year 2020 was expected to be a time to thrive, but the novel Coronavirus swept in, bringing death and demise with it. Information on COVID-19 symptoms and general updates have been constant reminders for us all, but what lies beneath the physical and psychological tolls is a foundation for maintaining our health: proper sleep. Sleep functions in restoration, regeneration, and memory consolidation. Through the secretion of hormones during sleep, our bodies are able to repair damaged cells and clear out toxic debris from our brains. Our memories are also sorted from short term memory into long term, as the information is processed. Sleep is necessary, especially in times like these. A good night’s sleep gives us strong immune systems, keeping us healthy and giving us more fulfilling lives. Investigating sleep issues amidst the ongoing pandemic is therefore critical for our health. Dr. Phillip Cheng argues that sleep maladies due to the presence of the coronavirus are rampant: “Everything going on right now can make people more vulnerable to insomnia.”1 However, sleep deprivation isn’t a new issue according to the CDC, and sleep expert Dr. Neil Stanley has stated that sleeping in due to COVID confinement is beneficial to stabilizing sleep.2 But has the quality of sleep actually increased due to COVID-19, as Dr. Stanley suggests, or worsened, as Dr. Cheng suggests? While sleep quality can be manipulated by a number of different factors, an analysis of the data suggests that indeed the ongoing pandemic has been generally responsible for critical sleep problems affecting health.

The environment presented by COVID-19 has brought radical change. With the constant news reports, the rise of COVID-19 cases, the fear of losing a loved one, and the fear of missing out of our own lives have played major roles in inducing anxiety. Missing out on normal events such as graduations, weddings, family visits, and more lead many to experience isolation and loneliness, leading to increasing stress and anxiety. While feeling anxious is a natural response the body sends out when it is under stress, those with severe anxiety disorders are suffering, and it’s affecting daily function. Anxiety has also been a main contributor to sleep disturbances like insomnia. Insomnia is one of the most common sleeping disorders, characterized by trouble falling and staying asleep, and it is in a toxic cycle with anxiety.3 As a result of the new world created by this ongoing pandemic, immense stress from anxiety over the disease have made it harder to sleep (insomnia), which has led experts to call this new condition Coronasomnia. At the onset of the viral outbreak, a study was conducted in China to see how sleep was being affected using several tests: the Insomnia Severity Index, Patient Health Questionnaire, Generalized Anxiety Disorder Scale, and Acute Stress Disorder Scale. Experts found that insomnia had increased by 20%, supporting the view that COVID-19 has impacted sleep through anxiety.4 Dr. Donn Posner adds that the pandemic allows for a “perfect storm of sleep problems.”5 

While these studies show that this new era with COVID-19 has made sleep issues rampant, sleep as a whole is an extremely fragile state that can be affected by many factors. Before listing off such factors, it is important to understand the science behind sleep. Composed of five stages, this complex activity works rigorously to maintain balance within our body and brain. These stages are divided into non-REM and REM (or Rapid Eye Movement) cycles, where dreaming occurs, and one cycle is about 90 minutes.6 Contrary to the saying that “sleep is for the weak,” it is one of the most productivity-fueled events of our lives. Such productivity slows as we age, which explains why infants need seventeen hours of sleep, young adults need eight, and so on. Professor Alice Gregory states that sleep changes throughout our lifetime, and that disturbances are also normal in different stages of our lives.7 And so, the major factors affecting sleep include stress, medications, substance abuse, and light exposure. When these factors get in the way of proper sleep, a range of issues can occur affecting memory, heart health, and cognitive function.8 Sleep deprivation as a whole has been a problem growing in the dark, with the first National Sleep Alert being issued in 1993, and in 2014, the CDC declared that insufficient sleep was becoming an epidemic.9 Another problem arising in recent years has been the so-called “blue light fatigue,” promoted by our modern age of technology, which has increased everyone’s computer screen time. Therefore, it would be premature to directly link current sleeping problems alone with COVID-19.

Sleep Stages Simplified | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

However, since the onset of COVID-19, researchers have worked strenuously to find out as much as possible about the virus, and in doing so, we know that fatigue plagues patients inflicted with the virus. The immune system and respiratory tract are known as the main points of attack by Coronavirus, and disruptions of the respiratory tract also disrupts sleep. Like the vicious cycle of anxiety and insomnia, breathing problems make sleeping difficult. Persistent breathing issues may cause long term breathing-related sleep disorders.10

Symptoms of Coronavirus | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

While COVID patients cycle with poor sleep, quarantine confinement has affected the mental health of the general population, also resulting in reports of poor sleep. Humans are social animals, so it is no surprise that isolation from society causes disruptions in mental stability. With lots of free time in isolation, and lacking normal social interactions, we are left alone with our thoughts—thoughts that can quickly become intrusive and spur anxiety as well as depressive episodes. Studies have shown that anxiety as well as sleep issues were present in high levels for those isolated just for 14 days.11 However, when able to socialize, these factors became significantly reduced. Along with these findings, prescriptions for anxiety and depression have spiked in recent months, revealing the heavy toll COVID-19 has taken on mental health, and in turn, on sleep.12 Those staying home and away from the outdoors as a whole are unfortunately messing with their internal clocks. As this occurs, our brains begin to confuse when the day ends and the night begins, which can explain daytime drowsiness and nighttime insomnia. Not only have the consequences of physical isolation impacted mental health, but they have also impacted biological deficiencies, compromising mentality and sleep. Stress initiates a part of the brain called the amygdala, a crucial piece that regulates our emotional responses, and is associated with insomnia.13 

Enough of the negatives. There’s always brightness to contrast the darkness, even in this situation. Several scholars support that COVID-19 has been improving sleep through its new rules for society: less morning hassle, flexible schedules, and the free time that people have long been wishing for. Dr. Ellemarije Altena and other experts discuss several positives coming from COVID-19 that actually benefit sleep, such as the opportunity to sleep in, exposure to daylight, and increased productivity. Being able to sleep in permits people to pay off their sleep debt, which balances out our circadian rhythms, or internal clock. As for exposure to natural light, this also helps our circadian rhythm differentiate between day and night, allowing for faster metabolism while sleeping. Virtual working and school gives us the ability to create our own schedules, increasing work satisfaction and productivity.14

However, our desire to fill in our free time is also confusing our bodies. That spike in productivity is our coping mechanism to keep busy. In our seeking mental health stability, we are causing what experts call hyperarousal. Hyperarousal initiates our fight or flight response as we encounter heavy stressors that affect our survival, like battling COVID-19, and it is correlated to insomnia.15 This extra energy we have is overworking our brains as we sleep, causing strange dreams to occur as we try making sense of our activities from earlier in the day. Additionally, while our stay-at-home lives have given us opportunities to improve sleep, alterations in lifestyles have done the opposite. We have all learned to be busy, and we have had our socialization to hard work balanced with other personal aspects of our lives. Therefore, this resocialization effect of staying at home and building our entire lives around that has possibly caused further exhaustion as well as changes in our circadian rhythms. Essentially, our bodies are very confused right now. As we stay at home, living sedentary lifestyles is becoming a norm. The lack of exercise is hindering oxygen to pump out energy, which causes states of fatigue. All these factors contribute to daytime drowsiness and feeling tired, despite having done nothing throughout the day but stare at a screen. So, even if someone sleeps for ten hours, they will still feel tired due to sedentary living, changes in schedule affecting the internal clock, stress, and many more factors being seen as a result of COVID-19.16

Insufficient sleep and its impact on the pathophysiology of the body | Courtesy of Healthcare Journal

While sleep probably isn’t the first concern when considering the pandemic, it has affected many, even those reading this. We are living through a transformative period, in which every aspect of our lives is being affected. It is imperative to be aware of the sleep issues being presented to us, as our health depends on it. Getting proper rest in these times gives us a better chance at living. COVID-19 has drastically decreased sleep quality through its attacks on mental health, immune and respiratory systems, and overall cornering the population into uncertainty. We will be wrestling with sleep for a while, and our dreams may only get stranger.

I would like to thank my parents for supporting me throughout this writing process, for lending their ear and radiating positivity. I’d also like to thank Dr. Heather Hill and Daniela Duran for engaging with my ideas and providing me with their own amazing experiences. Lastly, I’d like to thank Dr. Whitener for this opportunity to grow and explore my passion for writing. 

  1. “Coronasomnia: 9 Tips For Coronavirus-Related Insomnia,” March 19, 2020, Henry Ford Health System (blog),
  2. Neil Stanley, “Is there an Upside to Lockdown?,” April 2020, Sleep Station (website),
  3. “Sleep and Sleep Disorders,” April 2020, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (website),
  4. Li-Yu Lin, et al., “The Immediate Impact of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Outbreak on Subjective Sleep Status,” Sleep Medicine (2020):
  5. Clea Simon, “Insomnia in a Pandemic,” April 2020, The Harvard Gazette (website),
  6. Encyclopedia of the Life Course and Human Development, 2009, s.v. “Sleep Patterns and Behavior,” by Christina McCrae and Pamela Dubyak.
  7. Alice Gregory, Nodding Off: the Science of Sleep from Cradle to Grave (London ; New York: Bloomsbury Sigma, 2018), 135, 163.
  8. Renata L. Riha, Sleep: Your Questions Answered (London: DK, 2007), 84, 90.
  9. Vijay Kumar Chattu et al., “Insufficient Sleep Syndrome: Is it time to classify it as a major noncommunicable disease?,” Sleep Science 11, no. 2 (2018): 57.
  10. Vipin Malik et al., “Respiratory Physiology During Sleep,” Sleep Medicine Clinics 5, no. 2 (2012): 497.
  11. Han Xiao, et al., “Social Capital and Sleep Quality in Individuals Who Self-Isolated for 14 Days During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Outbreak in January 2020 in China,” International Medical Journal of Experimental and Clinical Research 26, no. e923921 (2020): 1,
  12. Sofia Pappa, et al., “Prevalence of Depression, Anxiety, and Insomnia Among Healthcare Workers during the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis,” Brain, Behavior, and Immunity 88 (2020): 901,
  13. Sleep Disorders Perspectives on Diseases and Disorders, 2011, s.v. “Poor Sleep has a Significant Impact on Health and Quality of Life,” by Sylvia Engdahl.
  14. Ellemarije Altena et al., “Dealing with Sleep Problems during Home Confinement Due to the COVID‐19 Outbreak: Practical Recommendations from a Task Force of the European CBT‐I Academy,” Journal of Sleep Research 29, no. 4 (2020)
  15. David A. Kalmbach, et al., “Hyperarousal and Sleep Reactivity in Insomnia: Current Insights,” Nature and Science of Sleep 10, (2018): 193,
  16. Charles M. Morin, et al., “Sleep and circadian rhythm in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Canadian Journal of Public Health 111, no. 5 (2020): 655,

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70 Responses

  1. I think this article is super informative and I love the studies you did behind and the pictures you showed us! I do believe it is important to talk about this and helps us have a better understanding about our health and how important sleep is for us and why we need it. This is such a well written article and congrats on the award!

  2. Thank you for providing this informative article to show our brain’s function in relation to sleep and the surrounding environment. I used to count sheep when trying to get myself to a deep dream but it did not really work for me most of the time. Moreover, my sleeping was affected heavily during this Covid situation that it’s hard for me to get to sleep at night. From your explanation, I have a broad view of my brain’s function in sleeping and hope that I can try a better way to fix it.

  3. Thank you for this great article! Also, congratulations on your award for best article in the category of “Public Health & Medicine”. You state a lot of facts about how this pandemic has affected our lives. I never thought we’d be living in a pandemic. It almost seems like history is repeating itself in this era we are living in. I agree that the pandemic has affected our sleep schedules. We were in quarantine and lockdown for a long time. This gave us freedom to form our own routines. For some of us, this affected us negatively. This caused many of us many mental health issues that came with anxiety and depression, which ties to obtaining less sleep. I can confirm that my sleep schedule was really bad at some point. I was not getting enough sleep. I hope that one day we will go back to normal.

  4. This Article caught my eye, as I have tried the counting sheep method before when I can’t sleep. Your article, however, was very interesting and relevant to present day. It was very interesting to hear that the pandemic had affected our sleep and overall health. I agree with the fact that quarantining greatly affects our mental health, but it was interesting to read that this also contributes to poor sleep patterns. This article was overall very informative and offered a different perspective on the effects of this pandemic.

  5. What an interesting article! This pandemic has really affected every aspect possible, even stuff we do not realize like sleep. During Quarantine and when the city was “shut down” mental health and sleep were definitely a personal struggle. Anxiety has overcome my life ever since 2019 sadly, and I am glad this article really has important information to share about that. I thin everyone should read this article to develop a deeper understanding of how COVID-19 has really effected our everyday schedules

  6. Especially in the current times we are in now, this article is very relevant to today. I myself, have not contracted the virus of COVID – 19, I am blessed to have been healthy throughout these troubling times. I enjoyed how the author greatly described how people who struggle with anxiety and how the pandemic times have made things miserable for them. This article was very informative about how quarantine and COVID – 19 has impacted people’s sleep schedules and mental health all over the world.

  7. Interesting article! I never really saw how sleep and corona had a correlation with each other but reading this makes sense. For me, since corona started I was actually able to get more sleep considering everything was closed down but I never got to see how corona can cause insomnia for others, especially those who suffer from anxiety. Very informative article!

  8. This is a very informative article to read! Sleep is a very important aspect on our health and how it affects our mindset. The pandemic took a lot out on my mental health and many of my close friends experienced the same things that I was at the time. I feel like this should have been more talked about on the news during quarantine and it should have been seen as a bigger priority.

  9. This was a very informative, well written, and captivating article! Even as I read this, more than a year after the coronavirus outbreak, it is a helpful reminder to keep an eye on sleep schedule and habits. I knew that the body gets rid of toxins as you sleep, but I was never aware of the implications it could have on your mental health, especially in combination with the extremely restricted lifestyle that we’ve been forced to revert to during the pandemic.

  10. This article is very relevant today. Quarantine and COVID-19 impacted my sleep schedule completely. I believe sleep is a huge impact on our health. This article informs readers about the importance of sleep and how our sleep has been affected by the pandemic. I also like the author describing people who have an anxiety disorder and how a pandemic can make things especially difficult for them.

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