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If Quarantine Has Ruined Your Sleep Schedule, Here’s How to Fix It

A chaotic sleep schedule can lead to social isolation and emotional distress, which are the last things anyone needs right now

Sam Novario, a 31-year-old physicist in Tennessee, works long hours feeding complex calculations through computers while constantly monitoring their progress to ensure that they crunch those numbers without fail. Before the pandemic, he may have occasionally complained about not necessarily needing to physically be in the lab to do his work, but now that he’s gotten his wish and is working from home full-time, his sleep schedule has devolved into pure chaos. 

“Before quarantine, I’d work an all-nighter only if I had to get work done, then I’d go in late and power through,” he tells me. “But in quarantine, I stay up late, maybe get up for a meeting, go back to bed until 5 p.m., then wake up and stay up until 9 a.m. I’m three solid weeks into taking two three-hour naps a day — one from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and the second from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. It’s the most consistent schedule I’ve had since March.” 

With a majority of Americans also no longer going into the office, Novario’s story isn’t unique, but it doesn’t make it any less wearisome. “When you don’t have to be anywhere ever — and work in the same room as your bed — it’s like there are no inhibitions,” Novario says. “My blackout curtains don’t help either, because I’m always in the dark.”

According to Allison Siebern, a psychologist who specializes in sleep disorders and neurological wellness at Proper, this could happen to anyone. “We all have an internal clock that’s not perfectly tuned to 24 hours,” she tells me. “Things that keep us synced to the 24-hour day are school or work schedules, morning light exposure, social cues and eating schedule. If these are removed or delayed, our schedules can naturally drift to a later time.” 

To that end, Novario says the occasional work meeting “is the only thing that connects me to reality in any kind of way.” “My bosses have kids and wives, so they’re still getting up at 8 a.m. and being normal. I don’t think they know that I’ve been up all night when they see me on camera,” he adds. 

Beyond loose daytime responsibilities, Siebern says there are other things that can further delay a sleep schedule — e.g., stress, anxiety and depression. “If upon awakening, an individual is in a state of high stress or feel — and there isn’t much to look forward to — it may further delay the desire to get up and get going in the morning,” she explains.

Siebern says no matter how much better people perform with a less restrictive schedule, “the wake time is still important as an anchor — even if it’s later — because the sleep schedule can keep drifting later and later.” In other words, if you’re better off sleeping until 10 a.m. and working later, that’s fine, but don’t let it slide much further since it can be a slippery slope into further isolation and increased risk of depression

“With the current trend of disrupted schedules, this could be the course for a while,” Siebern says. “The other concern is staying connected to family, friends and social support. If one is sleeping at the time when there would be some social contact through phone or video, it could lead to feelings of further isolation during a time when we’re already feeling isolated.” 

Novario admits that his schedule has gotten him into trouble. Last Sunday, for instance, his worried parents called, texted, Facebook messaged and left voicemails as he slept. “It’s nice that they care for me and love me so much, but I don’t know, I was sleeping!” he laughs, likening it to “that episode of Seinfeld when Kramer adopts the Leonardo da Vinci sleep schedule, only to fall asleep so hard that his girlfriend thinks he’s dead and has him thrown in the Hudson River.”

Waking up at varying times can also obviously affect you physically, too. Per Siebern, our body has hundreds of internal processes based on the 24-hour day. “If the hours you wake up and go to sleep become variable, it can lead to something in sleep medicine that we call ‘social jet lag,’ where the person is shifting time zones with their sleep schedule, which disrupts the regularity of those internal processes and feels similar to actual jet lag.” 

Novario says he’s constantly taking melatonin in an attempt to sleep through the night and reset his schedule, but Siebern suggests it would be much healthier for him to slowly return to normalcy, rather than attempting to make it happen all at once. “Again, it’s ideal to keep a consistent wake-up time. So if someone’s sleep schedule is completely reversed, they’d want to go slowly to shift it back into place so the body can adjust to the change,” she tells me. “Staying up all night or all day to reset the internal clock doesn’t work! You have to slowly push the sleep schedule back in place by one to two hours every few days.”

To his credit, Novario has already taken that advice to heart. Though, he’s still positive there’s a quicker option. “Maybe I should just open my blackout curtains,” he laughs.