Sleep during the pandemic

August 26th, 2020

It may not be the most obvious shift, but the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly changed the way we sleep in addition to the way we live. When President Trump declared a national emergency in mid-March, people in the U.S. started sleeping 20% longer. Without morning commutes to work or school and nowhere to go to at night, people could get up later and go to bed earlier. 

But for many, more sleep hasn’t necessarily meant better sleep. In one European survey, respondents reported sleeping 15 minutes longer during strict lockdowns, but getting lower quality sleep. Sixty-seven percent of Americans surveyed in May said their sleep had been healthier before stay-at-home orders went into effect. In fact, 98% of respondents reported new sleep problems. 

In the same May survey, 68% of respondents felt stress or found it hard to sleep even after lockdowns ended. According to pharmacy benefit company Express Scripts, the use of anti-insomnia drugs, along with antianxiety drugs and antidepressants, rose 21% between February and March, after a four-year decline. Anxieties about the virus and its impacts on health, jobs, finances and relationships all contribute to fragmented sleep and sleeplessness. 

Pandemic-related nightmares are prevalent as well. Harvard psychologist Deirdre Barrett collected dream records in which the invisible coronavirus morphs into visible menaces such as “bugs, zombies, natural disasters, shadowy figures, monsters or mass shooters.”

Benefits of sleep 

While never desirable, disruptions to sleep are particularly unfortunate now, when healthy sleep is, according to the journal Sleep Medicine, “important to cope adaptively with this crisis and uncertainty about the future.” “Sleep powers the mind, restores the body, and fortifies virtually every system in the body,” states the nonprofit National Sleep Foundation (NSF). 

Healthy adults need seven to nine hours of quality sleep nightly to realize sleep’s benefits. Those benefits start at the cellular level — sleep can, for example, improve the ability of T cells to fight off infection. The benefits of sleep extend to the heart and circulatory system; irregular or insufficient sleep is linked to high blood pressure and coronary artery disease, among other risks. Sleep is when “the brain reorganizes itself and consolidates memories,” writes Brian Resnick for The Atlantic, “it’s essential for learning and concentration.” Sleep ultimately influences our mood and relationships with others. Healthy sleep can help us feel more energetic, helps us control our hunger, and even makes us appear more “radiant” because it promotes our skin cells’ self-repair. 

Our national sleep shortage 

Despite sleep’s benefits, many Americans still try to get by with less than they need. In 2016, a major CDC study found more than a third of American adults (35%) reported getting less than seven hours’ sleep each night. Explanations for our national sleep shortage vary. CDC data indicates people in their mid-twenties to mid-fifties, prime decades for working and raising children, are least likely to get the recommended seven hours. Technology also plays a role. Watching TV and using smartphones just before bedtime and in the bedroom can make relaxing and falling asleep harder because the light from these screens disrupts our natural 24-hour sleep-wake cycle, making us feel more alert. 

On the other hand, many Americans don’t get enough sleep simply because we don’t make it a priority. In 2018, the NSF’s annual “Sleep in America” poll found only 10% of U.S. adults prioritize sleep over fitness and nutrition, hobbies, social life and work. Some workers in stressful occupations — healthcare workers, truck drivers and police officers among them — find the demands of their jobs make it difficult to sleep more. Some people think they can “catch up” on sleep over the weekend, but scientific research shows that the benefits of this strategy are “transient” at best. Dr. Jonathan Fielding offered this blunt assessment: “Americans don’t respect sleep . . . [O]ur casual disregard of healthy sleep is downright dangerous.”

Sleep and justice 

While it might seem strange to talk about sleep in terms of ministry, Jesus ministered to both people’s spiritual and physical needs, and his church strives to do the same. A “sleep ministry” might educate members about “sleep hygiene,” or healthy sleep habits. Members can encourage one another and hold one another accountable for adopting healthier sleep habits, much as they do for prayer or Bible study. Churches might also educate their neighborhoods about sleep hygiene through community health fairs or other programming. 

But sleep — or more accurately, the lack of it — is also an issue of justice. A “sleep disparity” exists in the United States. A decade ago, Nirav Patel wrote in the journal BMC Public Health that “poor sleep quality is strongly associated with poverty and race.” They found that Black and Latino people, especially in poverty, report poorer sleep quality than white people generally. 

Research continues to spotlight this sleep gap. In a 2013 survey, respondents most likely to have trouble falling asleep were Black, had no private health insurance, or were experiencing food insecurity. In 2015, the journal Sleep reported Black people were five times as likely as white people to get fewer than six hours of sleep a night, wake up more often during the night and feel sleepy during the day. 

Since better sleep is strongly and consistently correlated with better outcomes in health, educational achievement and income, helping people who aren’t getting enough sleep, especially those who are society’s most disadvantaged members, is another way for Christians to pursue the justice God commands. 

In Pineville, North Carolina, Harrison United Methodist Church partners with other nearby churches to build beds and provide bedding for children in the area who are either homeless or in transitional housing. This ministry inspired a similar program at Central UMC in Florence, South Carolina. “While everyone knows a good breakfast is important to optimal performance in school, I believe a good night’s sleep is even more critical,” said Central UMC member Art Justice, who spearheaded the effort. 

Ministries like these are practical, tangible ways for churches to help some of our most vulnerable brothers and sisters not only sleep better today, but also awaken to potentially better tomorrows.

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