Illustration by Suneesh K.
Note to readers: Healing Space is a weekly series that helps you dive into your mental health and take charge of your wellbeing through practical DIY self-care methods.
Being sleepless in the pandemic feels like watching the world’s worst livestream and not being able to log off. A survey by Royal Phillips in March this year discovered 37% Indians find it difficult to fall asleep, 27% find it hard to stay asleep, and 39% keep waking up. Pan-India research published by the Indian Journal of Psychiatry found 16.1% with reduced sleep, 18.1% with longer sleep, and a quarter of participants with worsening sleep quality. The British Sleep Society found significant correlation between abnormal sleep patterns, including increased nightmares, and pandemic-related mental health impact.
You’ve probably been sleeping too much, too little, or too erratically. Your mind may be crowded with fears, preventing you from drifting off. You may wake up at 3 or 4 am. You may nap in the afternoon, only to find yourself up all night and falling asleep unintentionally the next day. You may be disturbed by the smallest noise, from an elder drinking water, or even the hum of the refrigerator. Or you may be oversleeping and still waking up exhausted.
Our sleep is regulated by circadian and homeostatic factors working in tandem. The former sets our rhythm to sleep at night while the latter maintains sleep pressure. Think of it like water pressure, the higher the tank from the tap, the greater the force of water. So also, the more heightened your awake-ness by day, the higher your sleep pressure by night.
If your sleep patterns have changed, a couple of factors could be at work: emotional, financial, or work stress, increased screen time, shifts in regular sleep times, and daytime napping. Also, the onset of depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Those in their 20s, living alone seem more affected than older people who live with a partner or in large families. This is probably because threat perception tends to reduce in a group, if you have a family that feels like a safe space (some do not).
If you have lost loved ones or are suffering in other ways, strong emotions leave their mark on the body. We think we can push these feelings aside and get on with our work, but the body acts up. Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps The Score: Brain Mind & Body in the Healing of Trauma, writes: “How many mental health problems, from drug addiction to self-injurious behavior, start as attempts to cope with the unbearable physical pain of our emotions.” Several psychological problems, he adds, begin with the difficulty with sleep, appetite, touch, digestion and arousal, ‘basic housekeeping functions’ of the body. Chances are, you may observe disturbances in one or the other of these functions as well.
There are physical, emotional, and cognitive aspects to sleep disruption. These are exacerbated by financial constraints, a lack of privileges, and disabilities of various kinds.
People who lack the space to sleep may find family members interrupt, cooking or cleaning, or working, making a loud call in ways that wake you up. Negotiate to observe a standard sleep time as a family such that everyone gets fixed hours of sleep. People who live near hospitals or roads may hear traffic all night. It might help to use ear plugs, sleep masks or ambient sounds.
But everyone in a family may not feel sleepy at the same time and this solution may still impinge on your emotional autonomy. Some people cope with their sense of powerlessness by inverting the day. Staying up at night gives you the ability to use the internet, television, kitchen, with privacy and silence. To reclaim your sleep, you may have to give up on such freedom.
If you have been waking with a sense of dread, your panic response and anxiety may be kicking in. The thoughts you are not addressing during the day rise in the subconscious as you sleep.
If you’re not sure if you are sleep-deprived or just need less sleep nowadays, observe if you feel refreshed post sleep. If you do, it could be okay that you wake up earlier. If you don’t, it’s likely your mind isn’t getting its rest. Your body is reminding you that you can’t just soldier through and remain unaffected.