By Economic Times – How sleep emerged as a major casualty of Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown Women are not talking about sleep deprivation because they think it is only happening to them. Sonali Malaviya never obsessed about her sleep, until now. “Normally, I would go to bed at 10:30 in the night and wake up by 6 am,” says the Gurgaon-based tech marketing professional, who is in her early 40s. Over the last three months, though, she has been getting up at 3 am every night. “I check my sleep tracking app once a week and it shows that I am only getting four hours of sleep every day.

Typically, when you wake up in the night, you go back to sleep. These days the mind is never at rest so that is not happening anymore,” says Malaviya, filing it under latent Covid-19 stress.

Sleep has emerged as a major casualty in the wake of the global pandemic and the subsequent lockdown it has brought about in many countries, say insomnia therapists around the world. People across age groups are worried about catching Covid or passing it on to their family. They are concerned about job security. In many cases, the lockdown restrictions leave them with nothing time-bound to wake up to either. All these have led to “almost everyone” seeking therapy complaining of lack of sleep or a ruptured sleep cycle, say the therapists. And at least one-third of these are facing this issue for the first time.

Ravi Kant, a 27-year-old student from IIM-Shillong, started having sleepless nights after the lockdown forced him to return to his hometown, Patna, thereby disrupting his college routine. Though the classes shifted online, worries about an uncertain future keep him wide awake till the wee hours of the morning. He now uses the time between midnight and 6 am to focus on studying instead.
Carl Johan Hederoth
“If users express anxiety over tracking their sleep, we advise them to scrap the trackers and concentrate on how they feel in the morning. That is the best sleep quality score you will ever get” Carl Johan Hederoth, CEO, Sleep Cycle
“Family has also accepted this as my new normal.” As people are getting sleepless in Seattle, Shoreditch and Shillong, some are reaching out to tech for help. The downloads of sleep tracking app Sleep Monitor were up by 1.5X between April and May, and by 2X from May to June so far, at over a million Android installs. “We saw a lot of users from the US and European countries (mainly from France, Italy, the UK, German, Turkey, Poland) from March to May,” says a company spokesperson via email. “In May and June, we saw users increasingly downloading the app from Brazil, Indonesia, Vietnam and Egypt. All those were organic users.”
Joshua Tal
“People of colour are likely to have more sleep-related anxieties during these times. They prefer going to practitioners of colour but there aren’t a lot of insomnia experts of colour in the country” Joshua Tal, sleep and health psychologist, New York
Medication for sleep is the most preferred route in the US, say the therapists. In India, however, people prefer trying yoga, exercises, sleep-centric music and podcasts.

Sleep featured in the top 10 moods for users in India every week on Spotify since mid-April. Over the last three months, India was also among the top 10 streaming markets for popular sleep podcasts on the music-streaming app, according to data shared by the company’s PR team.

Over 40% of the people approaching MindPeers, a mental health tech platform, suffer from sleep-related issues, says founder Kanika Agarwal who shuttles between Delhi and Singapore. “Some people who reached out hadn’t slept in 3-4 days,” she says. The platform is active in Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru at present. Ishita Pateria, a counselling psychologist based in Mumbai, says she has seen a 70% spike in mild to major cases of insomnia among her clients in the past two months.

Sleepless in the city
3X More sleep-related enquiries to therapists after Covid-19 outbreak
20-30% Of sleep-related enquiries are from those experiencing insomnia for the first time
2X Increase in May-June downloads of tracking app Sleep Monitor; it was 1.5X in April-May
33% Hike in sleep music usage on meditation app Headspace since Mid-March, against past 30 days
Sleep featured in Top 10 moods on Spotify for Indian users every week since mid-April

Just why are so many people around the world having sleepless nights these days? Lindsay Browning, a sleep expert from London, explains it with an analogy: “If you see a lion coming to attack you, you will not be able to fall asleep, will you? Your body senses it to be a life-threatening danger and reacts accordingly. Heart rate goes up, so does your breathing rate, and there is a sudden rush of adrenaline.

It prompts the person to run in the opposite direction.” Covid-19 is what many see as a similar danger coming at them. “But this time you can’t physically run away.” So, the body responds to stress by staying awake.
Lindsay Browning
“Short-term sleep problems aren’t going to kill anybody. Else, every new set of parents would be dead. Our bodies will be able to recover from this” Lindsay Browning, sleep expert, London
The lockdown-led challenges don’t help. The human body has a circadian rhythm that takes cues from the sun to follow a routine which keeps them awake during the day and asleep at night. “A lot of people, say, in countries like Italy and cities like New York, live in flats that don’t get enough sunshine to get these cues. While working from home, people are also eating meals at erratic hours, which further confuses the body and messes up the circadian rhythm,” she adds.
Sonali Malaviya
Sonali Malaviya, early 40s Tech marketing professional, Gurgaon“Typically when you wake up in the night, you go back to sleep soon enough. These days that is not happening”Before Covid: Went to bed by 10:30pm, out of bed by 6 amSince Covid: Wide awake by 3 amCause: Latent stress about the uncertain futureWorkaround: Reading books — the paper version — and leaving all devices aside
Some are more susceptible to sleep anxiety than others. “Ethnic minorities like African Americans in the US and the Asians in the UK are more likely to have sleep problems,” says Browning. Joshua Tal, a New York-based sleep and health psychologist, agrees. “Due to systemic racism paired with the general distress around medical facilities at the moment, people of colour are likely to have more sleep-related anxieties during these times. They prefer going to practitioners of colour but there aren’t a lot of insomnia experts of colour in the country, which leaves them feeling they are left alone,” says Tal.

At MindPeers, 18-25-year-olds complain about sleep the most, citing concerns around uncertain career prospects. In the UK, Browning sees parents whose children are being home-schooled now suffering from lack of sleep. These parents care for kids during the day and tackle their work during late hours. “Children are struggling with sleep, too,” she says. “In London, the Covid briefing happens at 5 pm. The kids watch the news along with parents and it affects them as well.” As if lack of sleep wasn’t enough, many are now having recurring nightmares.
Ravi Kant
“Our online classes have moved to evenings because a lot of people have better internet connectivity during the second half of the day in their hometowns. We’re studying from evening to morning now. Families have understood this is our new normal”Ravi Kant, 27, student at IIM-Shillong, lives in PatnaBefore Covid: Slept for 6-7 hours in the nightSince Covid: Sleeps only for 2-3 hours early morningCause: Disruption in college routineWorkaround: Embraced the new sleep cycle for the time being
People in major Covid-hit cities like New York, Mumbai and London complain of vivid dreams that often align with the impact of the pandemic on their respective city. In New York, for instance, “many talk about having disaster-related dreams where they see the city crumbling down in an Armageddon-like scenario,” says Tal.

In Mumbai, Pateria’s clients have spoken about dreaming of not being able to run away from an incoming threat. “One of them said they saw someone coming to harm them but their legs were tied to each other so they couldn’t escape.” In the UK, people have had emotionally unsettling dreams connected to their family, says Browning.

As minds are on high alert almost all the time, these nightmares also wake them up in the wee hours of the night.

Worries around sleep are valid. Therapists say a good sleep releases motivational hormones and charges up the mind and the body. A lack thereof makes way for stress hormones that result in physical and mental fatigue. Mumbai-based advert ising professional Omkar Joshi, 27, is worried his erratic sleep cycle during the lockdown period is turning into a habit that will be hard to come out of “once normalcy returns”. However, Browning says this is likely to be a temporary issue and our bodies will be able to recover from this. “Short-term sleep problems aren’t going to kill anybody or every new set of parents would be dead,” she says, reinforcing her point. Besides, losing sleep over sleeplessness may just make things worse. “Embracing an erratic sleep cycle is the ideal approach at the moment, as sleep pressure compounds the issue,” says Tal from New York.

Therapists also ask their clients to build a sleep routine instead of worrying about not getting enough sleep. This routine involves visualising their sleeping environment — the bed, the bedsheet, the pillow – to ease them into the act of sleeping. Mobiles should be kept away from the bed and fragrant lotions and music should be used. Rajkumari Daga, a 57-year-old homemaker from Mumbai is following a “no coffee after 7 and dinner by 8” routine to revert to her normal sleep cycle of 11 pm to 7 am which has gone for a toss in the last three months, she says. Shalini L, a Mumbai-based marketing professional, listens to music from meditation apps like Calm and Headspace to quell her sleeping anxiety. “Since mid-March, as news of the global health crisis steadily increased, Headspace saw a 33% increase in its sleep music usage over the last 30 days of usage,” says Rich Pierson, the CEO & cofounder of Headspace. The app has over 10 million downloads on Android at present.
The New Normal
Browning guides her clients on different breathing techniques to help them calm down. She also suggests people allocate some time during the day to process their worries, perhaps via expressive writing in journals.

“That way some of the tension is released during the day itself.” At MindPeers, Agarwal’s team of psychologists often ask their clients to draw their palm on a paper and write all the things they can control within the palm and those out of their control outside the palm. It gives them perspective and a direction to tackle their worries, she says. A lot of people are also finding solace in the fact that they’re not alone in this, that many people are battling insomnia at present.

Most therapists are also actively discouraging clients from using sleep trackers during this period if too much information about their sleep cycle overwhelms them. The makers of certain sleep trackers propagate this, too. “If users express anxiety over tracking their sleep, we advise them to go scrap trackers and concentrate on how they feel in the morning. That is the best sleep quality score you will ever get,” says Carl Johan Hederoth, CEO, Sleep Cycle, that has over 5 million Android installs.

Even Malaviya in Gurgaon has chosen not to get hassled by her sleep tracker’s results anymore. “When you look back at the many difficult things you have gone through in life, it doesn’t feel as hard now as it did then,” she says, hoping that it will be the same this time around, too.
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