People all around the world are on lockdown. Many — though not all — suddenly have fewer commitments on their calendars than they ever had before. Freed from all the traveling to work or school and back, from rushing out to meet other people at restaurants or sporting events, and from doing all those errands that are no longer possible because so many places are closed, many of us who are not essential workers and who are not doing even more caregiving than usual, should be feeling especially energetic these days.
But that’s not what seems to be happening. All over social media, people are reporting that they are feeling inexplicably tired. They are going to sleep earlier, getting up later, and napping in between. For example, Emily Nussbaum, the Pulitzer Prize winning TV critic for the New Yorker, tweeted, “I’ve decided to call every afternoon’s sudden emotionally-drained nap The Collapse and just put it on my schedule and treat it as intentional.”
The Psychology of Sleeping
Why are we so tired when so many of the daily demands on our lives have disappeared? The key to the answer is that fatigue is not just physical, it is also psychological.
The coronavirus outbreak is scary. Many of us fear for our own health or the health of other people. Growing numbers of us know people who are infected or who have died. Even apart from health considerations, our lives have been upended and no one knows how this historic episode will unfold or when it will end.
Anxiety and stress are terrible for sleep. Those feelings can result in sleepless nights and unsettled days, leaving us chronically exhausted.
For me, it takes a very high level of anxiety for my sleep to get disrupted. During times of lower levels of anxiety or persistent uncertainty, sleep comes easily and is a comfort. It is my coping device. I have never once felt guilty about sleeping too much during times of stress. I figure it is better than alternatives, such as substance-abusing myself into oblivion or kicking the dog. (And anyway, I don’t have a dog.)
Many of us are experiencing a lot of sadness these days, regardless of whether we struggled with depression before the coronavirus outbreak. Even the most fortunate among us, who don’t yet know anyone who has been infected or died, and have not had our own health or livelihood compromised, can easily be feeling despondent over all the suffering all around us. Sadness and despair, like anxiety and stress, can make you feel much more tired than your level of physical activity seems to warrant.
When our days were filled with lots of different kinds of things, they may have been more interesting than they are now. Our many commitments and interests added variety to our days, and structure, too.
When your days feel monotonous and repetitive, with each day much like every other day, even on the weekends, it is easy to feel sleepy.
If you used to commute to work or school and you are not doing that anymore, and you aren’t doing a lot of the other errands and activities of your everyday life because that’s no longer possible, you may have more time in your day than you did before the pandemic. Just knowing that more sleep is a possibility can make you sleepy.
If you were among the chronically sleep-deprived before the lockdown, the opportunity to get more sleep can be quite welcome. It is a different experience, psychologically, than wanting to sleep because you are sad or stressed or bored.
Lack of Motivation
When I am planning how long it will take me to complete a project or an assignment or anything else I’m working on, I almost always underestimate. If I am determined to finish it on a particular day, I’ll stay up even later than usual to do so.
Once in a great while, though, I complete something early. I then have more time left in my day than I had anticipated. I might think to myself, “Great! Now I can start on the next project!” But instead, the strangest thing happens. I suddenly find myself utterly exhausted. I’m too tired even to do something fun, like read or watch TV. All I want to do is sleep.
Maybe something similar is happening to some of us when we are quarantined. We may have more time available, in theory, to do all sorts of things. But we just don’t want to. All we want to do is sleep.
Be Kind to Yourself
Sleeping too much can be a sign that something is wrong, so it cannot be totally dismissed as just a symptom of our strange times. But within reason, getting more sleep than usual should not be a cause for concern. In fact, as Iowa State University sleep psychologist Zlatan Krizan has noted:
“[Sleep] is one of the most protective and restorative factors in human life. Slumber is essential for thinking clearly and staying upbeat during any time. Moreover, sleep is indispensable for maintaining immunological function, which is key to preventing and recovering from infectious diseases like COVID-19. Losing sleep makes people more susceptible to viral infections, and it undermines recovery from the common cold as well as more serious conditions. For this lethally stealthy bug, it may be even more important.”
If you are feeling extra tired these days, be kind to yourself and sleep. Sweet dreams!