Coronavirus: Why do people seem to feel groggy and tired during lockdown?

Ever since the UK was placed in lockdown on Monday 23 March, people across the nation have had to quickly acclimatise to spending an increased amount of time at home and indoors.

Disruptions to everyday life have been far-reaching. While some have had to become accustomed to working from home every day, others have been unable to work at all.

The way in which our lives have transformed in such a short space of time has heavily impacted our daily routines, as many individuals no longer have to wake up at a certain time in order to be punctual for school or work.

This has seemingly resulted in an increasing number of people experiencing “grogginess” amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“Anybody else feeling seriously sluggish and groggy in the mornings since lockdown started? Assuming it’s down to routine completely stopping,” one person recently tweeted.

“This lockdown has ruined my sleep cycle completely. Even when I do sleep, I wake up tired and groggy,” someone else wrote.

So what is grogginess?

“The medical term for grogginess is ‘sleep inertia’,” Dr Natasha Bijlani, consultant psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Roehampton, explains to The Independent.

“Grogginess refers to a phase in between sleep and wakefulness when an individual doesn’t feel fully awake. People who are affected feel drowsy, have difficulty thinking clearly and can be disorientated and clumsy for a while after waking.”

Matthew Walker, professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California and author of Why We Sleep, compares the way in which a brain wakes up to an old car engine, stating that sleep inertia occurs when “sleepiness is still hanging around in the brain”. “You can’t just switch it on and then drive very fast. It needs time to warm up,” he says.

The reason why a person may be experiencing grogginess could be down to a variety of reasons, Walker tells The Independent. These include: sleeping at a time that doesn’t suit your chronotype (such as being a night owl or an early bird); not sleeping for a long enough period of time; not enjoying good quality sleep or an underlying sleep issue, such as sleep apnea (a disorder that commonly results in snoring).

While these reasons may indicate why a person is experiencing grogginess on an occasional regular basis, they do not clarify why there appear to be an increasing number of people frequently feeling groggy during the lockdown.

Why do more people seem to be experiencing grogginess in the current climate?

One of the main reasons why people may be feeling quite groggy as of late is reduced exposure to natural daylight, outlines Professor Colin Espie, professor of Sleep Medicine at the University of Oxford.

With government guidelines dictating that members of the public can do one form of outdoor exercise a day and only leave the house for activities such as going to the supermarket or picking up medicine, time spent outdoors will have been drastically reduced in recent weeks.

Professor Espie explains that daylight is “the main biological signal to alertness”, which is why lack of exposure to ambient daylight, or outdoor light, is making people feel less alert throughout the day.

“As we approach the sleep period, we get an increase in a hormone called melatonin, which is expressed during sleep, just prior to sleep and during sleep,” he tells The Independent. “[Melatonin] then reduces its expression towards the morning and is switched off by light, so if people are not actually getting exposure to light in the mornings as they normally do when they go to school or they go to work, then there’s a likelihood that they will have more of a sleepiness propensity particularly into the mid-morning.”

Professor Espie further emphasises this point by comparing the intensity of external light to indoor light. “External light is hundreds of thousands of lux [a measure of illuminance]. Even bright light indoors is probably only a few hundred,” he says. “Our eyes adjust so we don’t necessarily realise how dark it is compared to outside. So I think that’s a major part of it.”

Another significant factor is the impact of anxiety on quality of sleep, Dr Bijlani says. When people are unable to enjoy sufficient quality sleep, this can result in them feeling groggy the next day.

“We are in the midst of a global coronavirus pandemic and find ourselves in an unprecedented time of uncertainty and stress as we process the implications of all aspects of our lives,” the psychiatrist states. “Most of us will be feeling a degree of anxiety, even if it is at a low-grade background level and it is likely to affect the quality and duration of our sleep.”

Walker concurs that anxiety is likely to be affecting people’s ability to experience deep sleep that is of a good quality.

“We know that when people are anxious, the depth of their deep sleep isn’t as deep anymore,” he explains. “So when you are anxious the day before, it usually leads to worse quality of sleep that night and unfortunately it’s a vicious cycle.”

Professor Espie adds that the constant influx of news regarding the Covid-19 outbreak is probably putting many people “in a state of high alert” and feeling a “sense of helplessness”, which may be “energy-sapping” for them.

Furthermore, being at home all the time may be ridding many people of a regular routine, which would typically help them wake up and feel ready to start their day.

“I think the grogginess people are experiencing as the days go by is a natural response to all our normal routines being upset,” says Jessica Alexander, a spokesperson for The Sleep Council. “We need to work at establishing some new ones to help us get through.”

If you are experiencing grogginess, what can you do about it?

Firstly, it is important that you try your best to stick to a routine, both in the evening and in the morning, Dr Bijlani says. “Try to maintain a regular sleep-wake routine even if you don’t have to get up to travel to work at present. We function better when we keep to a regular rhythm and get enough sleep time for our individual needs.”

Professor Espie says that some people may be feeling groggy at the moment because they are spending more time in bed than they usually would, in addition to napping during the day when they do not sleep well at night.

“What this does is it tends to break down the pattern or discipline of regular bedtimes and rising times,” he says.

In order to figure out a sleep pattern that works for you, you need to consider what your individual sleep needs are, Professor Espie states.

The professor explains that questioning how much sleep you actually need, what the best time it would be for you to go to sleep and when you are most productive during the day will help you ascertain what your chronotype is.

“Some people are natural night owls, some people are natural morning people. So an understanding of your natural sleep tendency is a good thing,” he says.

Professor Espie adds that “good sleepers don’t even think about it” when they go to bed. “Don’t try and force it. Because if you try to sleep you’re almost certainly going to keep yourself awake and get frustrated.”

If you are in bed and are unable to sleep, then getting out of bed and doing an activity could help put your mind at ease, Walker recommends.

“Just accept it’s ok, you’re struggling with sleep tonight, get out of bed, go to a different room, then in dim light just read a book or listen to a podcast and only return to bed when you’re sleepy,” he says, explaining that if you stay in bed during times such as these, you may end up training your brain to believe that your bed is the place where you are always tossing and turning.

When trying to improve your alertness, it would be wise to ensure you have a decent amount of exposure to natural daylight in the morning, Professor Espie says. You could do this, he suggests, by factoring your outdoor daily workout session into your morning ritual.

“You want to use light to improve your alertness and to facilitate coming out of sleep in the morning. So early morning bright light, natural daylight is good if you can, even if it’s standing outside,” the professor says.

Trying to alleviate your state of grogginess isn’t just a case of making changes to your morning routine. Introducing a wind-down ritual in the evening could also have a positive impact on your wellbeing.

Jonathan Warren, director at bed specialist Time4Sleep, stresses that in the current climate, “making the transition between work and relaxation” at home is “all the more difficult”.

“Getting a good night’s sleep is more important than ever right now which is why you should ensure you have a comfortable and relaxing bedroom environment to help you properly wind down and switch off,” he states.

You can create a calm environment for yourself by doing things such as removing clutter from your bedroom and making sure that your bed looks cosy and inviting, Warren says.

Alexander, of The Sleep Council, adds that you should disconnect from your devices for at least an hour before you go to bed and do relaxing activities such as having a hot bath, reading or meditating.

Furthermore, you should try to limit the amount of caffeine you are consuming during the day and alcohol you are drinking at night, Walker says, explaining that too much of either can “disrupt your sleep” and “lead to grogginess the next day”.

On the subject of ensuring you go to sleep in a calm state, Professor Espie states that it is important to “protect the bedroom environment from being a place where you just lie and worry and ruminate”.

“This isn’t the place you should be trying to figure stuff out. This is the place that you go to get respite from the day and to get your recovery sleep so that you’re ready for the next day. Those are things that you can schedule during your daytime, or during your early evening.”

However, Professor Espie understands that for some people, especially NHS healthcare workers, this may be easier said than done. This is why the digital platforms Sleepio and Daylight, which he designed, have been made available across the NHS workforce.

“All these guys working in the NHS and frontline working in a care environment are going to be pushing through all the time, just having to crack on and get things done,” he says.

“These things are challenging for us but we should also put things in perspective.”

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