Many of us might be doing less, but it’s worth noting that one’s basic need for sleep stays pretty consistent regardless of the specific activities you’ve been doing. Even if you lay on the sofa all day and did absolutely nothing, you would still need a night’s sleep. “Although it may be harder to nod off because you haven’t done any exercise or been exposed to much light,” says Prof Gregory.
Anecdotally, many people she has spoken to have found their sleep to be broken – whether that’s due to anxiety or other factors, it’s hard to tell.
There are winners as well, though. Prof Gregory’s husband, a dedicated commuter, has been released from his 5.30am alarm bell and has been savouring the longer lie-ins.
“It’s absolutely glorious watching him have a little lie-in for the first time in 15 years. He’s never complained, but I just feel for him, especially knowing the literature,” she says.
He’s not alone. According to surveys by 23andMe, a genetic data company, the average time people woke up before the lockdown was 6.18am, thanks to alarm clocks. Now a third of people are switching off alarms and letting the body’s natural circadian rhythms dictate when they wake (the average waking time being 7.06am). Lockdown is allowing us to realign with our natural rhythm.
Prof Gregory’s children’s sleep/wake cycles have shifted to later, especially for her eldest, who, at 10 years old, is not far off the earliest stages of puberty. Teens are, typically, recommended to get between 8 and 10 hours of sleep per night, which is likely to support their growing bodies and minds. But research shows that many teens do not get enough sleep because their school start times are not aligned with their body clocks, which shifts to a later sleep/wake pattern during the teenage years.
Everyone in Prof Gregory’s family has experienced some sleep change, except the expert herself.
She admits to being a little envious of those who have experienced vivid dreams. Yes, she’s woken up a couple of times feeling anxious about the future. But on the whole, it’s been sleep as usual for the professor, who regularly gets a whopping nine hours a night – at the top end of the seven to nine hours recommended for her age group.
It must be annoying not to present a more interesting case study for herself to study? “Exactly!” she says. “I’m quite boring when it comes to my sleep.” Maybe after studying it for so long, she’s got it sussed? “People often say that the topic you study can really come into your life,” she laughs.
Away from the family setting, Prof Gregory and her research colleagues in the field of sleep are busily collecting data from this “fascinating” period that will be analysed in the months to come.
She wonders what the lingering effects of lockdown will be for each of us and our different lockdown sleep experiences. Will those who have struggled with anxiety find their insomnia stays with them? What support will there be for those suffering recurrent and distressing dreams as a result of events that have occurred during the crisis?
Will the luckier among us be able to cling to the sleep positives? Or, having adjusted sleep schedules in line with internal patterns, will they be forced to return to their early starts and pre-lockdown sleep-deprived ways?
Companies may come to rethink guidelines on working from home, so that tired workers can, ultimately, be more productive. The proposals for staggering work times might help to make this possible when people return to work.
Gregory certainly hopes so. “I do wonder whether employers are doing enough,” she says. “It might be that a big firm gets an expert in to tell their employees how important sleep is, but if they still want them in the office by 7am every day and don’t want them to leave until 8pm at night, there’s always going to be a problem.”
Knowing what our individual needs are can enable us to shape the positive habits that are conducive to good sleep. Now is an opportunity to listen and pay attention to your sleep needs and, when lockdown finally lifts, hopefully your sleep is one thing that returns to normal.
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