Why Am I so Tired? Scientists Explain What Keeps Us up at Night

Sleep is a vital ingredient to keeping us physically and mentally healthy. Without a good night's sleep, our entire next day can feel like living under a shadow.

The massive weight of the coronavirus pandemic has caused many of us to struggle with getting to sleep, whether due to anxiety or changes to our usual patterns.

Having lost our routines, being forced to isolate from the ones we love and feeling more concerned about the world during the pandemic, sleep has been hugely impacted.

Psychologists and social scientists have been studying the effects of COVID-19 on our sleep patterns, answering the question of why we can feel more tired than usual during the pandemic.

Dr. Nilu Ahmed, of the University of Bristol in the U.K, told Newsweek: "Sleep is critical to physical and mental wellbeing and any disruption to sleep can have an impact on our mood and wellbeing.

"Over time, poor quality sleep (including oversleeping, undersleeping, restless sleep) can take significant tolls on health."

How Quarantine Changed Our Sleep

Quarantine, lockdown and regulations around coronavirus have had an effect on our sleep patterns, according to scientists.

One study published in 2021 in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine saw scientists analyze sleep studies and data over the pandemic from 13 countries.

Their systematic review found approximately 40 percent of people from the general public, as well as in the health care profession, had suffered from sleep problems during the COVID-19 pandemic.

They also found the rate of sleep issues are even higher in those who have the virus, and those in the health care profession have suffered more sleep problems than the general public during the pandemic.

According to Dr. Melissa Shepard, a psychiatrist based in Maryland, the coronavirus has also increased the prevalence of other issues which also hamper our sleep.

She said: "It does appear that the pandemic has significantly affected sleep for many people.

"We know that the COVID-19 pandemic has been associated with increased rates of depression, anxiety, trauma-related disorders, stress, and substance abuse, all of which are known to cause problems with sleep.

"The pandemic has also led to significant changes in people's routines and sleep schedules, which can also impact sleep."

According to Dr. Kate Robinson, co-founder and clinical director of My Therapy Assistant, the period of prolonged stress could also be a result of changes to our nervous system.

File photo of man struggling to sleep
File photo of man struggling to sleep. The coronavirus has meant our changing patterns have affected sleep. Getty Images

Robinson explained how the prolonged stress of the pandemic can cause our bodies to progress from "fight or flight" to a "shutdown state that is primed to ride out the danger," a phenomenon seen in the animal kingdom when prey choose to play dead to escape a predator.

She said: "In this case, the threat is not coming from a dangerous animal, it is coming from a chronic set of circumstances associated with the virus, whether that be threat to health, threat to livelihood or threat to emotional wellbeing due to feeling frustrated, lonely, trapped, powerless, bereaved.

"For people who are feeling lethargic or sleeping more than usual during the pandemic, this could reflect their nervous system moving into this shut down state until life can resume again."

Ahmed said the massive change to our routine has also been detrimental to our sleep.

She explained how social cues, such as socializing, getting home after work, or going to the gym, act as signposts to our brains that we are entering our "evening routine."

Without these and exposure to natural light, it can be hard to switch off from work mode, and "play havoc with our circadian [body clock] rhythms."

Ahmed also pointed out that, by being at home more, we can be tempted to oversleep, which can ultimately make us feel more tired.

A recent study published in the journal Sleep suggested social withdrawal is also a reason why our sleep can be impaired.

The study found, after analyzing people's sleep patterns through wrist monitors and through their own self-reporting, those who expressed their loneliness were found to report worse sleep, and for their wrist monitor data to concur with this.

As a result, it is clear the elevated levels of anxiety, changes in our routines and isolation can all add to our struggle to sleep soundly.

Working at Home and Sleep

Ahmed's point also shows how, for many of us, achieving a work-life balance during the coronavirus has been difficult, with more people working from home than before.

She said: "There is a lot of evidence that shows working from home has resulted in people working longer hours and struggling to switch off, especially when people use the bedroom as their workspace.

"This impacts the quality of sleep people are getting, and may mean a reduced benefit from the added extra hour of sleep that can be gained from not having to commute."

File photo of woman struggling to sleep
File photo of woman struggling to sleep. Isolation and lack of exposure to natural light can cause changes to sleep patterns. Getty Images

She said establishing new situational cues is vital to gaining back a balance, whether that is taking a walk to break up the work day or minimizing screen time.

Robinson added how important it is to maintain our body clock rhythms, which has been a challenge since working from home due to the lack of routine, inactivity and increase screen time.

She added: "Additionally, for those who have been juggling working from home and childcare/home schooling, the increase in load has often resulted in going to bed later as people log on again in the evening once childcare duties are done."

Will Socializing Help Me Sleep?

As countries begin to open up more as the rollout of vaccines continue, there are questions over whether a return to socializing will help us return to normal sleep patterns.

There is no empirical data to support this idea, though a study published in journal Nature found that poor sleep can lead to behavioral withdrawal and loneliness, showing a link between socialization and sleep.

However, for others, socializing again could pose new threats for those more anxious about COVID-19.

File photo of a tired person
File photo of a tired person. Scientists have founds links between tiredness during the pandemic. Getty Images

Shepard said: "We may find that some of the increase in insomnia over the past year eases with decreased restrictions because people are able to return to pre-pandemic schedules and routines.

"This may allow for more activity and more exposure to sunlight during the day, both of which can improve sleep.

"However, it is also possible that easing restrictions could lead to increased concerns about exposure to COVID-19 or concerns about reintegrating into work, school, and social situations.

"Increased anxiety and stress from these changes could worsen sleep."

Robinson noted that, as well as socializing, going out may mean increased activity levels, which could also improve sleep, while some may find the increased anxiety is detrimental to their rest.

She said: "Starting to socialize again will likely involve an increase in physical activity as people leave the house and travel to meet others.

"This and the increased mental stimulation that socializing brings, as well as an increased range of activities people can do together, can help to build 'sleep pressure' (otherwise known as our need to sleep) and improve sleep."

As well as this, socializing will allow us more opportunities to seek social support, which would improve sleep.

However, she also expressed how "re-entry anxiety" can disturb sleep for those concerned about starting to socialize again.

She added: "As with everything, our individual differences and perceptions of what we are experiencing influences the reactions we have to change."

Ahmed added how socializing causes us to use different parts of our brains which have not been used while we have been isolated.

As a result, it may be we at first feel more tired while socializing, but eventually the new patterns will help our energy to increase.

She said: "A return to socializing uses more of our energy, this can lead to a sense of hyperarousal in the first instance as our brains fire up for conversation and adjust to these conversations happening face to face rather than 2D on a screen.

"We will be using parts of our brain that have been dormant for some time.

"Some people may feel unusually fatigued after social interaction because it has been so long since we have experienced this, as we return to interacting more, our energy to manage this will increase."

File photo of an anxious person
File photo of an anxious person. Increased anxiety can be a reason for sleep deprivation. Getty Images