Could Worry About COVID-19 Affect Sleep?


COVID-19 has impacted our lives considerably and likely permanently in many ways, but has worrying about the pandemic affected our sleep? This question is what some recent research out of the UK investigates after conducting weekly assessments on over 45,000 adults during the COVID-19 crisis between April – Mid-May 2020.

Psychosocial stress can reduce sleep length and increase sleep disturbance, which can, in turn, reduce individuals’ ability to cope and respond to stressors, and worsen health outcomes. And it’s not just loss of sleep due to changes because of COVID-19, but also worrying about what might be.

Becoming ill with the virus, experiencing financial difficulty, losing your job, difficulties in accessing food, medication and care, and threats to personal safety are all real outcomes from the pandemic and reasons to worry. But it’s also worrying that any of these could happen, that is leading to sleep loss and sleep disturbance. Critically, sleep has a direct impact on fatigue levels and consequentially on our mental health.

This article discusses the research that highlights the importance of interventions that seek to reassure individuals and support adaptive coping strategies during the pandemic to improve sleep.

Worrying Through the Pandemic Could Have Lasting Effects on our Mental Health

During this COVID-19 crisis, we see increases in abuse in vulnerable relationships and a rise in violence levels in already violent homes. Self-isolation is placing domestic violence abusers under additional strain, and this group doesn’t typically have well developed emotional resources or coping skills.

There is evidence that domestic violence, poverty, job loss, economic recession, and job insecurity, have lasting impacts on mortality and physical and mental health outcomes. Further, it is not just the experience of these stressors but also worries about the potential of these stressors that can affect mental health. Worry increases our stress levels, that in turn affects our well-being, and leads to depressive thoughts.

The more we worry, the higher the increase in our levels of psychosocial stress, which is known to impair sleep leading to shorter sleep length and sleep disturbance. All of this impacts on our physical health decline, such as reduced health outcomes, for example, cardiovascular disease, weight gain and increases our overall fatigue. A lack of sleep and an increase in worrying leads to shorter lives.

See our article, COVID-19 and the Rise in Domestic Violence.

How Can We Improve Our Sleep?

The study found that specific COVID-19 issues around difficulties in accessing food and medication, the experience of domestic abuse, and contracting COVID-19 caused sleep loss during the pandemic. However, the fear of losing your job or cuts to income were only associated with poorer sleep, not loss of sleep.

Having more close friends helps to moderate the relationship between worries and sleep. Engaging with a larger social network also has some protective effects. These results suggest the importance of interventions that seek to reassure individuals and support adaptive coping strategies.

The study authors recommend that given the challenges in providing mental health support to individuals during the lock-down, these findings highlight the importance of developing online and remote interventions that could deliver such support, both as COVID-19 continues and in preparation for future pandemics.

How Can Coping Strategies Reduce Worrying?

In times of crisis and particularly during lock-down and re-emergence, we are all feeling uncertainty about the future. Feelings of high stress and anxiety are not uncommon, and even a small thing can cause us to worry. We need to increase our resilience to prevent daily stressors from negatively impacting on our mental health and disturbing our sleep. One way to do this is to learn coping strategies and the actions we can take to calm our minds.

Tap into Safety understands the great importance that learning coping strategies has on our continued well-being. When we show signs of stress, anxiety or experience depressive thoughts, it’s critical that we have learned coping mechanisms to move our thoughts to positive and empowering ones. But this is a skill that has to be taught; we’re not just born with the ability to always cope in times of high-stress.

Our interactive training Platform uses micro-learning to teach coping strategies and where to seek help when things get too tough. Some of the topics we cover include:

  1. Helping Employees with Mental Health Concerns
  2. Depressive Thoughts and Alcohol Use
  3. Working from Home
  4. Managing Your Employees
  5. Signs of Declining Mental Health in Employees
  6. Fear of Job Loss
  7. Domestic Violence
  8. Fatigue Management
  9. Financial Stress
  10. Gambling Addiction

On the training platform, we also have some free support material, including a comprehensive library of self-help articles on mental health conditions with information on strategies. There are also free mindfulness meditations to help to de-stress and address anxious and depressive thoughts. Employees can use them whenever they need a quick reset before getting back into their working day.

To Conclude

Stressful times, such as the pandemic we are working through, can impact on our sleep because we worry about what is happening. Not only that, in many cases, we worry about what might happen in the future. The study that we present in this article conducted weekly surveys with 45,000 people in the UK over six weeks in April and May 2020. The data was collected at the height of the pandemic and investigated the impact of worry on sleep.

The findings are interesting in that what we might think would lead to typical loss of sleep, such as job loss and financial impacts only resulted in interrupted sleep. Where sleep loss occurs is when people had difficulties in accessing food and medication, experienced domestic abuse, and feared contracting COVID-19. It wasn’t only the experience of these three issues, but also the worry that they may occur that caused sleep loss.

Several supports can overcome worry, and these include having more close friends and engaging with a larger social network. Overarching, the study highlights the importance of developing online and remote interventions that could provide such support. These results suggest the importance of interventions that seek to reassure individuals and support adaptive coping strategies.

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