With More Time To Sleep, Why Are We Still So Exhausted?

Clinically Reviewed by Catherine Richardson
exhaustion during coronavirus

There aren’t many silver linings when it comes to being quarantined at home in the middle of a deadly global pandemic. But one of the things I was hanging my hopes on when this began, was that I’d get a chance to catch up on sleep.

I’m a busy mom of two kids, and pre-quarantine, I was waking up at the crack of dawn to get my kids ready for school and on the school bus. Then I’d work all day, tend to my kids when they got home from school, feed everyone again, work some more before bedtime, put my kids to bed,and then usually stay up way too late — nights were my only “me” time.

I was averaging about 6 hours of sleep a night, which may work for some, but it really wasn’t working for me at all. I was always exhausted.

Now, everyone in my home can sleep as late as we want, and while I’m still working (and attempting to homeschool my kids, which is a whole other headache), there is a lot more flexibility in my life. I had been really looking forward to sleeping till 8am, stressing less about the busyness of life, and catching some much-needed ZZZs.

But, instead, I’m finding myself more exhausted than ever. It feels totally counterintuitive, and totally unfair. And yet, I know I’m not the only one. Almost everyone I know who is stuck at home now is abysmally exhausted. Sure, we no longer have to commute, and we barely have other commitments besides working (if we’re been lucky enough to still be employed,) and keeping ourselves or our families fed.

So why are we more tired than we’ve ever been?

Why Are We So Tired?

It turns out that there are a few reasons why so many of us are dripping with fatigue even though we have oodles of time on our hands for rest and relaxation. In a nutshell, living through a global crisis is not exactly good for our stress levels — and stress can permeate all aspects of our bodies and minds.

Trouble falling asleep and staying asleep

I don’t know about you, but it is taking me a lot longer than usual to fall asleep. Even once I’m asleep, the quality of my sleep is poor. I almost always wake up between 5-6am, mind racing, and it takes me forever to fall back asleep, if I even do.

Why is that? Blame stress — more specifically, the hormones that are released when we are stressed: cortisol and adrenaline. Essentially, the stress that so many of us are experiencing during the day affects our sleep at night.

“Stress not only keeps the mind racing, which can get in the way of falling asleep, but it also triggers the release of several hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol,” explains Michael J Breus Ph.D., in Psychology Today. “This activates your ‘fight or flight’ response system and raises your blood pressure and heart rate; it can also lead to sleep disorders like insomnia.”

But increased stress hormones don’t just make it difficult to fall asleep; they make it difficult to stay asleep too.

“Chronic stress raises cortisol levels…and it can certainly cause you to have more awakenings during the night. It doesn’t matter if you have the time to sleep,” Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and the Weill-Cornell School of Medicine, explains to The Washington Post.

Blame “quarantine fatigue”

But it’s not just chronic sleep deprivation that can make us tired — though that’s certainly a huge factor here. It’s also the onslaught of scary and depressing news; the days that bleed one into the other; and the sense of gloom and doom that many of us are experiencing. All of that together can really stress out our bodies, deplete our resources, and leave us feeling completely wiped out.

“A lot of people describe being really fatigued at the end of the day,” Mary Fristad, psychologist from The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, explained to Healthline.

“[W]e’re all experiencing so much change and unpredictability in our life,” Fristad added. “A lot of people are feeling very anxious, particularly if they’re having financial difficulties, which so many people are.”

Not only that, but some of us are actually feeling overburdened, says Fristad, especially parents, who are suddenly shouldering the dual responsibility of homeschooling their kids while working from home.

But even if you’re not a parent, you may still be feeling over-extended. You may be facing unemployment, or deaths and illness among your loved ones. If you are an essential worker, you may be working extra hours, and experiencing the enormous stress and anxiety of working on the frontlines of the pandemic.

We are less active

It sometimes feels counterintuitive, but extending energy through exercise or movement actually gives you more energy overall. Plus, it can help you sleep better. So many of us are spending endless hours holed up in our homes — which often means we are depriving ourselves of exercise and activity, not to mention sunlight and fresh air, both of which are natural energizers — that, when combined with the shuttering of gyms, we’re finding it difficult to get the exercise we need.

“[S]tudies link time spent out in fresh air and sunshine to a greater sense of vitality,” explains Whitney Christian, a family medicine doctor at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Not only does being outside benefit you with more energy throughout the day, but vitality helps our bodies become more resilient to physical illness.”

4 Ways To Cope With Exhaustion

Over the past few weeks, I’ve become more determined than ever to get more rest. I’ve always had migraines, but over the past few weeks, they have been near-constant, which is a wake-up call to me that I need to prioritize sleep and destress as much as possible.

Here’s what I’m doing to maximize my sleep and increase my energy levels.

1. Keep a regular sleep schedule

It may be tempting to use this time to stay up late and sleep in, or to allow yourself to have a sleep schedule that is all over the place, but that only makes your sleep worse overall and can lead to chronic exhaustion. You will sleep better if you keep a regular sleep and wake schedule.

2. Limit news exposure, especially right before bed

As a news junkie, this is a hard one, but experts agree that limiting your exposure to upsetting news right before bed will mean a better night’s sleep. It makes sense when you think about it. If you jack up your system with stress and anxiety right before you go to sleep, how are you supposed to relax and unwind?

3. Get active and get outside

Just 30 minutes of activity a day can help you sleep better — and while it can be hard to get outside the house these days, just getting out a few times a week (while practicing strict social distancing) can work wonders for the body and soul.

4. Work on your stress levels

Besides following safety recommendations, there is little we can do as individuals to make this pandemic go away. This lack of control can feel really scary and anxiety-inducing to many of us, but experiencing stress 24/7 doesn’t have to be our reality. Making time each day to manage your stress can make a huge difference. Maintaining destressing routines — such as meditating each day, making time to share/vent with loved ones, and connecting with a mental health professional — are all ways we can manage our stress levels.

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of being tired. And at this point, no one really has any idea how long the stay-at-home orders impacting many of us will last, when things will get back to normal, or what that that normal may even look like. We may be in this strange space for the long haul, so it makes sense for us to figure out ways to adapt — being well rested should definitely top our lists.

I’m making this a priority for myself from now on. Are you in?

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