Pandemic stress linked to poor sleep, study finds

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Stress, anxiety, and depression during the first few weeks of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic were associated with less and lower quality sleep, according to a new study by researchers at Washington State University published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience.

In a survey of more than 900 twins taken shortly after COVID-19 lockdown measures began, about half of the respondents reported no change in their sleep patterns, but around a third, 32.9 percent, reported decreased sleep. Another 29.8 percent reported sleeping more. In the analysis, the researchers found that any change in sleep was connected to self-reported mental health issues, though it was more strongly associated with decreased sleep.

This study analyzed survey responses collected between March 26, 2020 and April 5, 2020 from participants in the Washington State Twin Registry. Since then, the same group has answered three more waves of survey questions. Researchers said they are particularly interested in studying twins, so they can investigate whether associations are mediated by genetic factors, shared environment, or both. The pandemic also offered an opportunity for a natural experiment to see how a stressful situation affects sleep amount and quality among individuals in the community, the researchers said.

The study showed a connection, not a cause, the researchers said, but the study supports previous research that has found a two-way relationship between disrupted sleep patterns and poor mental health. When people don't sleep well, they are more likely to feel stress, anxiety, and depression, and when they are dealing with those same problems, they are more likely to sleep less, and sometimes more, than the typical six to nine hours a night, they said.

Additionally, the research relies on the self-reported perception of sleep length and quality, but the researchers said that when it comes to mental health, perception can matter more than the real amount of sleep.

The researchers have also conducted twin-studies on COVID-19 lockdown effects on alcohol use and pandemic stress and exercise. These have all been initial studies taken at the early stages of the pandemic and associated social distancing measures. The researchers said they are still analyzing results of later surveys, but they are starting to see a common theme.

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