Since lockdown began, Kameron McIntyre has been plagued with feeling exhausted and having stark, vivid dreams.
“I get this feeling that I haven’t even slept. I feel like I’ve gone through something turbulent mentally,” the 27-year-old explains.
Mr McIntyre, who lives in London but is from Ireland, has been furloughed from his job at a skincare brand. His dreams, problems with feeling tired and uncertainty around his job are contributing to his anxiety and depression.
“I feel exhausted, literally exhausted, I’ve literally no motivation to do anything,” he told Sky News.
“Some of the dreams I’ve been having recently are very vivid… I had a dream all my relatives died and I think my big concern about that is that I’m stuck over here.”
He is not alone.
For the majority of Britons, day-to-day life now sees people stay at home, indoors for most if not all of the day. Having no commute to work means extra time in bed and no pubs open means there are fewer reasons to stay out late.
Despite this, many people are reporting they are finding it harder to wake up in the morning, feeling fatigued during the day and when they do get to sleep at night, are experiencing strange and vivid dreams.
Professor Colin A Espie, Professor of Sleep Medicine at Oxford University, explains that the changes to our lives as a result of the lockdown measures are impacting our 24-hour sleep-wake cycles, known as circadian rhythms.
“I’ve definitely noted more people having issues with sleep,” Professor Espie told Sky News.
“There’s lots of talk about staying well in the day by staying home and looking after yourself, but it’s also important to stay well during the night time.”
He adds: “Sleep is central to our lives and because it happens automatically we take it for granted. Now we are in one place [most of the day] it is easy for sleep and wakefulness to merge.”
This, he says, amounts to a “dampening” of our circadian rhythms and can make people feel fatigued during the day and feel unusually groggy in the morning.
The role of natural outside light is important in how a person’s sleep cycle functions with receptors in our eyes reacting most strongly to white light from the sun.
Professor Espie explained: “We use daylight as a thing that trains our 24-hour body clock.
“People are getting less daylight and not getting up as early. That loss of light and change of habit allows the body clock to drift and can lead to a sense of malaise.
“It’s important to maintain a routine and to get daylight. This means get up at your usual time, unless it was very early, getting dressed and so on.
“This helps keep the rhythm, and if you do your exercise outside, do it early in the day to make the most of the outside light early on.”
Professor Espie suggested a series of tips to improve a person’s sleep cycle:
Going to sleep at your regular time that suits you, whether you are an early riser or a night owl
Not getting into bed too early, only just before you hope to go to sleep
Allowing for your sleep space to have low lighting
If a person can’t sleep, they should get out of bed and do something else for a short while before trying again
Keeping to a routine during the day, including getting up at a normal time and getting dressed
Getting daily exposure to day light, be that through exercise or even just standing at your front door.
Avoiding sleeping outside of your usual routine is also important.
“It’s easy to eat more than you need but it’s hard to sleep more than you need. By sleeping outside of normal times, a person’s sleep pattern will fragment and make it harder, with sleep often becoming lighter,” Professor Espie explains.
People feeling sleepy may yawn or involuntarily fall asleep, and should consider a rest or short nap.
But a person feeling fatigue (general tiredness, a low mood, a lack of energy) would be better suited to doing an activity rather than trying to sleep, following a daily routine and getting enough daylight.
Sleeping out of turn from fatigue can make it harder to sleep at night, which can fuel the anxiety and stress many are already experiencing during this pandemic.
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Professor Espie explains: “When people were panic buying food it’s because the threat of having no food is alarming. You can compare that to if people then also think that they can’t sleep, they then worry that they are unable to.
“When you sleep fine you don’t think about it, it’s only when it goes wrong and then the more you try to sleep, the harder it can seem to achieve.”
It is not just impacting people who are staying indoors for most of the day. Key workers, including those working on the front lines to tackle coronavirus, are also experiencing changes to their sleep.
Steph Barker, 26, a cardiac physiologist in the NHS, told Sky News: “Once you get home you can’t face doing anything else because it’s so much effort to think about anything.”
She said she had been having unusual dreams.
“There was one where I went to see a musical, and then suddenly the main actress got sick and it turned out I was the understudy, but I didn’t know the lines,” she said.
Professor Espie explains that dreams occur in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, the first episode of which is 60 or so minutes after you fall asleep, repeating throughout the night.
He said having dreams that make little sense is normal, but adds: “At times of stress, however, we might have dreams that feel as if they have more emotional or anxious content.
“And of course we probably are a bit more anxious than usual just now. It shouldn’t surprise us that we are the same person whether we are awake or asleep. That’s pretty much all that is happening.”
But, he warned, there exists a risk dreams can be over analysed.
“There are people who take the interpretation of dreams way too far,” he said.
“I’ve seen so much nonsense about this in the media. People who do this have little or no understanding about sleep science combined with a lot of confidence in their opinions.
“We shouldn’t bother listening to them.”