As we draw in the new year, a personal review of 2021 – in lieu of more exciting life events – defines it as a year of not getting enough sleep. Hours spent tossing and turning, four a.m. starts, and essays written in a fatigued fugue, had all become, for me, a new normal.
Prior to this, I had typically been someone who could fall asleep within the healthy, human average of ten to twenty minutes, dreamily relaxed in partial thanks to the blissful unawareness in which I did so. And, more importantly, once asleep, unless awoken by some pre-pandemic alarm, I would stay that way for the next eight hours circulating through my equally healthy REM cycles.
As various studies and personal testimonies have shown us throughout the past two years, this idea of an easy, full night’s rest has become something of a distant dream to many of the adult population. A common disorder, insomnia is characterised by having both difficulty falling and staying asleep, as well as feeling tired while awake. With the lack of stimulation provided during intermittent lockdowns, the stresses of remote working, alongside the anxiety produced by Covid, it was unsurprising that insomnia (for a time dubbed ‘coronasomnia’) became so widespread.
However, this disordered sleeping was not just suffered by older, working adults. A 2021 study orchestrated by the NHS, which reviewed the sleeping habits of participants aged 17 to 23, found that an overwhelming 57.1 per cent of them reported having sleeping issues. This percentage was even higher amongst those suffering from mental disorders, with 86.7 per cent admitting to having problems with sleep.
An initial, glaring reason for this would appear to be the intermittent restrictions brought on by Covid. Just last year, the psychiatry department at RCSI set up a website – “Mental Health Educate” – primarily aimed at those aged 13 to 21, in order to provide resources in order to help cope with the ways in which the isolation, academic pressure, and reduced support structures were having a negative impact on young people. Since stress and poor sleeping habits are two of the leading causes of insomnia, the unique constraints provided by the pandemic provide an obvious point of blame.
Fortunately for most, the future is looking – tentatively – bright. We have yet to resume the more extreme restrictions of the past two years and, with the high uptake in vaccinations, the threat of Covid has become lessened. Our regular schedules, social lives and interests have begun to resume. With these lifestyle improvements, it would seem that the majority of the current disruptors to sleep are also set to disappear.
The one that most likely won’t, however, is our attachment to our phones. Even before the pandemic, an Irish study conducted in 2018 showed that twenty percent of young people aged 16 to 21 spent over six hours per day on their phones. According to numerous reports, due to the induced isolation of the lockdowns, this amount of time spent on such devices has only increased. Social media usage, in particular, has been placed under scrutiny with regards to its effects on sleep. Users staying up late to use certain apps, being exposed to psychologically stimulating content, and blue light causing disruption to our natural circadian rhythms are all side effects of our increased addiction to staying digitally connected.
So, what can be done? As frustrating as dealing with disordered sleep can be, many of the solutions are not complicated, but rather require some healthy lifestyle readjustments. Creating a routine with regards to when you both wake up and go to bed is both important and easy to avoid for students still completing college partially online. Making sure your room is comfortable, not drinking caffeine at least six hours before bed, reducing screen time, and only going to bed when you are tired, are all simple but effectual things that you can do in order to improve the quality of your sleep.
Mental health disorders that often have negative effects on sleep, such as anxiety and depression, are important to seek professional help for. However, if trouble sleeping is being brought on by the general stressors related to the times we are living in, practising relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, and deep breathing can all be incredibly helpful with regards to improving sleep. Equally, if living in a noisy environment, such as a student accommodation, investing in a pair of comfortable noise-cancelling headphones can also make it easier to sleep.
In these stressful times, is easy for our sleep to become impaired by overuse of screens and poor lifestyle habits. However, by making a conscious effort to improve our waking lives, many of these issues can be improved.