Why am I tired all the time? Experts share how to feel more rested during pandemic

We might have more time to sleep than ever, but coronavirus stressors and other factors might leave people feeling more exhausted.

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By Kerry Breen

With few activities going on and many spending most of their time at home, it seems like people should be getting more sleep and feeling more rested than ever during the coronavirus pandemic.

However, experts say that many people might feel just the opposite.

According to Courtney Bancroft, a clinical psychologist and sleep specialist based in New York City, there are several reasons why people might be feeling more exhausted than they regularly would.

"The short answer is it varies, right?" she said. "In general, our daily lives are completely different. For a lot of people, there's no clear differentiation of the days, the week, the hours of the day, where we work, where we sleep. Social activities, work, family, and chores are all within the same four walls, which can really impact somebody's sense of schedule, and when our schedule is thrown off, it can impact our circadian clock."

More time spent looking at screens can lead to trouble sleeping at night. Getty Images

To try to combat the general stressors of social distancing and spending more time at home, experts advise trying to create a regular schedule. Make sure that you create different spaces for different activities (for example, avoid working from bed if you can).

"Probably what helps the most is to wake up at the same time daily, which is really hard to do," said Eleanor McGlinchey, a professor of psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, New Jersey. "As best as you can, stay consistent with that time. It'll mean that all of your circadian rhythms and sleep rhythms will align with that wake-up time, so you're actually feeling sleepy at, say, 11:00 p.m. as opposed to 2:00 a.m."

McGlinchey also advised trying to keep naps to a minimum, or at least avoid taking them late in the day.

Things like mood issues, which go hand in hand with isolation and loneliness, can also keep people up at night. Stress and adrenaline can also prevent people from falling asleep.

"We're experiencing a collective stress and collective trauma right now," Bancroft said. "And so we're on high alert ... The adrenaline is pumping more. And adrenaline is that transmitter that gives us the boost in energy, and that leads into kind of the fight-or-flight or the stress-related increase right now ... Everybody's trying to get used to these new ways of living. And so our adrenaline and stress responses are on high alert. And when that happens, it's really, really difficult to get a good night's sleep, it's almost as if the volume gets turned up on our alarm systems."

More time on computer screens, especially later in the evening, can also affect how much sleep people get and alter the quality of that sleep.

"Many people get to the evening and can't seem to unplug from the media that is keeping them mentally engaged and preventing them from winding down," said Michael Grandner, director of the sleep and health research program at the University of Arizona in Tucson. "Especially now that everything seems to move so fast and there seems to be so much going on every day."

Building in time to relax before bed can lead to more restful sleep. Getty Images

In addition to having a schedule for the day, Bancroft and Grandner both recommended having a "buffer zone" before bed, where you take time to disengage from screens and other distracting activities, putting your brain in a more relaxed state before bed.

Even if people aren't having difficulties falling asleep, experts noted it's possible that sleep can be disrupted by stress, dreams or other external sources.

"Many people are waking up in the middle of the night and having trouble getting back to sleep," said Grandner. "This can be caused by a number of things, but it's likely that stress can cause lighter sleep and more awakenings. People are reporting extra-vivid dreams and nightmares much more often than usual."

And it's not just in your head — things like diet, exercise and other lifestyle changes can lead to changes in your sleep pattern.

"The one thing that is kind of a theme for everyone is that lack of structure," McGlinchey said. "When you don't have that ... you don't think, 'OK, I have to be up at this time and be ready for my day. I can just roll out of bed, what does it matter?'"

Bancroft noted that when it comes to caffeine consumption, people may not realize that their bodies don't need as much caffeine as they might normally.

"I really suggest switching to decaf during this time, cutting down the amount, or doing a mix of decaf and regular coffee," she said. "I think our bodies really don't need as much caffeine right now... It's more like a habit. And I think the structure of the day, still having your morning drink, is really important to keep, but I think the caffeine levels are something to really look at."