There's a lot to keep people awake right now: rolling news broadcasts about the coronavirus, the President taking a drug with no proven benefits against the virus, general panic over the economy, and so on. Some of us, though, are finding that being alert and alarmed all the time is making us, well, sleepier. Sleeping like a baby during the pandemic? It's not actually unusual, experts tell Bustle — and it doesn't mean you care less about what's going around you.
Your newfound eight hours of shut-eye may have to do with your new lack of commute, or that workout you're doing every day — but it could be related to how you react to stress. When you're on high alert, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode, which is a heightened state that prepares you to deal with danger. "Increased heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, the release of stress hormones, poorer quality sleep, less oxygenated breathing — all of these stress symptoms wear the body down," Josh Klapow Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, tells Bustle. "This increased physiological load on the body results in more fatigue, and for some people, the desire and need to sleep more."
The stress response of the body is intense, even if it's short-lived. "Short-term stress leads to panic-like symptoms of rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, and feelings of losing control," Dr. David Merrill M.D., a psychiatrist at Providence Saint John's Medical Center, tells Bustle. After you've gone through this adrenaline-driven, wide-awake response, though, your body will start to crash. Feeling anxious is tiring, and sleep is the body's attempt to restore balance. If you're sleeping deeply after stress-induced exhaustion, you may even wake up feeling more refreshed than usual.
There are multiple types of stress, too. As the crisis has extended over months, our initial acute stress responses — fear, panic, difficulty sleeping — might have changed to chronic ones, Dr. Merrill tells Bustle. Chronic stress is a very different beast; it means that you've been under pressure for a long time, rather than just experiencing one shock or problem. It can lead to all kinds of health issues, but it's particularly linked to fatigue.
"Chronic stress leads to high levels of the stress hormone cortisol," Dr. Merrill says. "The symptoms include fatigue, irritability, disrupted sleep, and generalized worry. As we’re all being worn down by the stress, the body is sending signals to rest." The pressures of being stuck inside your house, worrying over the news, trying to work or parent or just take care of your cat, can build up over time and end up making you very, very exhausted. Sleep, Dr. Merrill explains, is the body's way of lowering cortisol levels and resetting the nervous system.
Stress, whether it's acute or chronic, makes your body work harder and less efficiently to perform the same activities, Klapow says. If you're sleeping all the time, it's a signal that your body is trying to recover. Anybody who's feeling very sleepy right now should do their best to unplug from the things that might be worrying them, and do some de-stressing activities, Dr. Merrill says. "Unplug from the 24/7 news cycle about coronavirus, spend time with loved ones, and take a break in the present moment. We're all in this together," he says.
Josh Klapow Ph.D., clinical psychologist
Dr. David Merrill, M.D., psychiatrist
Wallensten J, Åsberg M, Nygren Å, Szulkin R, Wallén H, Mobarrez F, et al. (2016) Possible Biomarkers of Chronic Stress Induced Exhaustion - A Longitudinal Study. PLoS ONE 11(5): e0153924. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0153924