The Pandemic and Sleep Deprivation: The Unseen Impact

By Sean Mulryan – Current Affairs Editor

The COVID-19 pandemic still looms large in the psyche of everyone , with a particular impact being had on the amount of sleep achieved by students. According to a study created by King’s College London and Ipsos MORI into the UK Public Health, it was concluded that 46% of 16-24-year-olds admit to averaging less sleep than what they achieved previous to the pandemic.

This arrives as a shock, naturally it would be expected that with more time on our hands, we would sleep more. So, why exactly are we sleeping less? Some view it to be a consequence of measures taken to keep us indoors to help alleviate the grisly realities of the pandemic. While necessary, it has resulted in a litany of issues for student wellbeing.

Leo Morton, a 22-year-old student who is entering his final year of studying biochemistry at University of Glasgow, has been plagued by sleep disturbances.

“The last year and a half has been extremely difficult and traumatic. The pandemic has resulted in a lot of stress and anxiety for me. Before the pandemic, this was never an issue for me. The knock-on effect of this is that I have found it extremely hard to sleep at night because I can’t switch off.”

Sleep is undoubtedly one of the major catalysts in maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and Leo has felt the impacts of not achieving this.

“My energy levels have suffered and as my anxiety has caused sleep deprivation, I don’t even have the energy to meet friends anymore, leaving me feeling extremely isolated.” he said. “My concentration levels and attention span have vanished, leaving me feeling incredibly worried for what is in store for me when I return to University.

“It is a vicious cycle, the pandemic induces anxiety for me, leading me to become unable to sleep, and that lack of sleep, I feel, has led to these mental health problems becoming amplified.” He spoke.

University of York in a 2019 study found, ‘cross-sectional associations between sleep disturbance and major depression, anxiety…’. It can arrive with little shock that Leo is experiencing a deteriorating mental health as a result of unsatisfactory sleep. 

What is evident from Leo’s story is that coronavirus has impacted on society in a far more emphatic and disastrous manner than first appeared on the surface. Leo’s story sparks the need for questioning why sleep is important, especially for students.  

What is apparent at surface level, is that students’ mental health will deteriorate, like it already has done with Leo, as a result of sleep disturbance. The same University of York longitudinal epidemiological study into young adults revealed a, “…lifetime association of sleep disturbance was with major depression…”. All evidence points to an all too unfortunate correlation between poor mental health and sleep problems. 

Understanding why we have evolved to require sleep, is complex and quite frankly still baffles scientific researchers to this day. 

What we do know, is that sleep occurs in two cycles, rapid-eye movement sleep, REM sleep and non-rapid eye movement sleep, NREM sleep. With both of these cycles changing every 90 minutes, vying for control of our brains. 

Both sleep cycles are majorly influential. REM sleep is largely associated with dreaming, as discovered by Eugene Aserinsky and his academic advisor Professor Nathaniel Kleitman in 1952. It plays a fundamental role to brain development, forging neural pathways and allowing for memories to be cemented through the tool of dreams. Achieving less REM sleep than the body requires may impact on a person’s ability to retain information, impairing concentration. 

NREM sleep involves three stages, N1, N2 and N3. In N1, a person is on the cusp of light sleep so may still be easily awoken and N2 is where body is seduced into deep sleep. Stage three is where the magic happens, this is where sleep acts to repair, regenerate and restore damaged tissue of the body. is important. Without it, we would all resemble that of the living dead and the world around us would be akin to The Walking Dead universeWell, maybe that is slightly hyperbolic. 

Matthew Walker (above) is greatly influential in the study of as to why we sleep, Google. 

While many may view students to be zombies regardless of how much we sleep, unjustly as I will come to conclude, it is a necessity for our ability to learn. A study executed by professor of neuroscience and psychology, Matthew Walker, and his research team aimed to prove the requirement of sleep for education. 

The study set two groups of participants the task of undergoing rigorous learning. The stipulation of the test was that upon completion of the learning exercises, one group were required to take an hour-long nap, whilst the other group remained awake. Both groups then reconvened later in the day and carried out further learning exercises. 

Expectedly, the group who remained awake experienced a decline in learning ability, while the sleeping beauties flourished. Sleep replenishes the brain’s ability to conjure new memories, to learn new things. This becomes extrapolated with longer spells of sleep, “…the more sleep an individual has at night, the greater the restoration of overnight learning…”, this serves to outline the necessity of sleep for preparing our brain to soak up new information, becoming essential for students in particular, which Walker concludes in his book, Why We Sleep.  

Evidently, the influence that sleep has over our functioning lives is more pertinent than what may appear at first glance, and when this begins to suffer, the problems are numerous. These problems particularly impact on young people. 

David Barone specialises in neurology and sleep medicine 

Earlier this year, Daniel Barone, associate medical director of the Weill Cornell Centre for Sleep Medicine theorised that the problem arises from people not, “…getting that daily exposure to sunlight in the morning. That can disrupt their internal clock.” He stated. Unfortunately, there is a particularly negative and harmful reputation for young adults to be labelled as lazy for requiring a surplus of sleep. Biologically speaking, our circadian rhythm dictates we require sleep to aid in our development. For Leo, and a vast number of people, the pandemic has upset the natural sleeping order, with disastrous consequence on our mental and physical health. 

Published by The Gown Queen's University Belfast

The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.

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