If you're logging eight hours and still feeling unusually sluggish, here's why.

By Iris Goldsztajn
Apr 08, 2020 @ 9:00 am
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Franziska & Tom Werner/Getty Images

I've always been able to sleep like a baby. Even now, during this unprecedented global pandemic, I am grateful to say that I can easily sleep eight hours, uninterrupted. Which makes my recent daytime drowsiness all the more baffling. Lately, once 2 p.m. hits, the strong urge to take a nap creeps in (and I don’t nap, ever) and by 8 p.m. I’m barely able to keep my eyes open. (Though of course, I typically resist the call of nature and scroll through the entire internet instead, until I’m too anxious and wired to fall asleep for at least another two hours.)

To be sure, the ability to get a solid night's rest is definitely not the case for everyone right now, especially for those who have kids or are working long hours on the frontlines. But I’m also not alone in my experience. Most of my group chat complains about feeling unusually exhausted and sluggish, too. When I asked my Twitter followers if they could relate, I was inundated with messages from people telling me that they were sleeping fine — but still having a hard time having enough energy to get through the workday.

So, what is it then? Here, psychologists and sleep experts weigh in.

Why you’re so tired — even if you're sleeping enough:

Your routine is thrown off.

The world looks completely different, and so do our daily lives. “Sleep is controlled by our circadian rhythm, which is our internal 24 hours clock,” says Dr. Lindsay Browning, a chartered psychologist at Trouble Sleeping. “It is usually regulated by daily cues such as exposure to daylight, when we eat our meals, and when we exercise. When we stay indoors for a long period of time, we lose many of these cues.”

“Getting into new routines and rhythms for living and working will affect our energy levels — it's a big change to adapt to,” adds Nerina Ramlakhan, Ph.D., a sleep therapist and author of Fast Asleep, Wide Awake.

Plus, without a physical separation between work and home, many are finding themselves working longer hours than before. “Working from home can have a huge impact on energy levels because it blurs the lines between personal and professional, which can leave us feeling unable to switch off,” Dr. Ramlakhan says.

You’re spending too much time in bed.

If you live with roommates and are now using your bed as a desk or dining table, that can also be a culprit. “People are spending too much time in bed awake and they’re starting to associate their beds with being awake,” says Kathryn Pinkham, founder of The Insomnia Clinic. “The problem is that in order to sleep really well, we have to spend lots of time out of bed. Time spent out of bed increases our appetite for sleep, so the longer we’re out of bed for, the better the quality and the amount of sleep we get.”

You’re spending too much time online.

And all that scrolling I’m doing? It’s definitely not helping, either. “Social distancing has meant that we’re probably spending more time than ever on our phones messaging, video calling, and using social media to connect with the world, as well as checking the [news] for the latest updates on the epidemic,” Dr. Ramlakhan says.

Although connecting with others is important, navigating a social life in the age of social distancing with endless Instagram Lives and Houseparty meet-ups can end up draining our energy, she explains. Plus, too much blue light exposure from screens can mess up our circadian rhythm, confusing our bodies into thinking it’s daytime long after the sun has set.

Plus, you’re (rightfully) feeling anxious.

Perhaps the most important factor, though, is the incredible amount of stress, anxiety, and upset we’re all experiencing. “Hanging over us all the time, like a big black cloud, are worries about our own health and livelihoods as well as that of the people around us,” says Irene S. Levine, Ph.D., a psychologist, author and producer of The Friendship Blog. “Constant stress like this can take an enormous toll on our minds and bodies.”

We’re collectively worried about a global pandemic like we’ve never seen, not knowing when we’ll get to see our loved ones again. Those who live alone may be feeling very lonely, while those who live with others may find tensions mounting between them and their roommates, live-in partners, parents, or children. To top it off, but many people are losing work and worried about paying their bills, not to mention the threat of a devastating recession. “All of these factors are emotionally draining, leading to a sense of low energy and fatigue,” Dr. Levine says.

How to feel less tired during self-isolation:

Stick to a set sleep schedule.

If you’re feeling so sluggish that you can’t make it through the day without napping or experiencing low mood and motivation, it’s important to introduce structure. “Get up at approximately the same time every day,” Dr. Browning says. “Even though you may not have to get up to go into the office, keep setting your alarm to help your body know when the start of the day is.” Shower, get dressed, and try to eat at regular times.

Now that you don’t have to wake up earlier to commute to work, it will feel very tempting to sleep as much as possible, but avoid oversleeping, since it can actually make you feel more tired. Aim for about eight hours (the exact amount each of us needs might be a bit more or less) and try not to nap during the day, as this might impact how well you sleep at night.

Eat for energy.

Don’t beat yourself up too much about how you’re eating — these are stressful times and reaching for comfort food is normal, plus the foods you’re used to may not be as readily available. That said, if you’re feeling low on energy, your diet may be playing a part, especially in the morning. "Eat breakfast within 30 to 45 minutes of waking up,” Dr. Ramlakhan says. “This will help stabilize your blood sugar – and maintain energy – throughout the morning. Avoid overly sugary cereals and include protein in your breakfast to avoid a blood sugar spike and subsequent crash.”

Drink more water and less coffee.

For those who are now drinking coffee all day long, consider this: Coffee is dehydrating and could make you feel more wired and jittery than genuinely energized, Dr. Ramlakhan says. Cut down on caffeine (ideally no more than one morning cup of joe) and drink at least two liters of water every day, she suggests. "When you're properly hydrated, the cells in your body will be able to function at their best and you'll see your energy levels increase.”

Watch your alcohol intake.

I get it, it’s a stressful time. I’ve certainly reached for a glass of wine during isolation more often than I typically would, but again, if you’re feeling super fatigued, it's worth looking at your alcohol consumption. Not only can the sedative affects of alcohol make you feel drowsy, but they can also dramatically reducing the quality of your sleep. Translation: even if you're logging eight hours, you may still feel tired and unfocused the next day. 

Take breaks.

It can be a lot harder to step away from the computer when there’s basically nowhere else to go, but you should still make a point to do it. “Our bodies typically work in 90-minute energy cycles,” Dr. Ramlakhan says. “So, make sure you take a few minutes’ break from the computer screen every 90 minutes if you’re working from home. Drink some water, walk around your garden, do a few stretches, cuddle your dog – these mini rests will not only help to lift your energy levels, but it will also make you more productive.”

Exercise.

The main reason we’re feeling sluggish is because we’re less active — we’re sitting around a lot more and we’re no longer getting activity from simply commuting to work, Pinkham says. “The less active we are, the less energy we have,” she adds.

“Find ways to exercise safely, whether it's taking socially-distanced walks or doing an at-home online workout,” Dr. Levine says. It’s all about finding what works for you, whether that’s 45 minutes of HIIT or learning a 30-second TikTok dance.

Get outside if you can.

Not all of us are lucky enough to have a garden and, depending on where you are, there may be strict restrictions on the time you spend outside your home. That said, daylight and nature are integral to your wellbeing right now. “If you can get outside, get outside,” says Pinkham. “If you can’t, then at the very least keep your windows and blinds wide open; make sure you’re getting as much fresh air into your room as you can, as much daylight into your system as you can. If you’re always sitting in a darkened room watching TV, you’re going to feel sleepy.”

Connect with others.

Feeling disconnected from the world could also be making you feel depleted. “Find ways to stay connected with colleagues and friends with Facetime. Organize virtual cocktail parties. Play games like Words with Friends,” Dr. Levine says.

A sense of connection will help, but be careful of being on Houseparty all day long. Try to set limits on how long you spend socializing, so that you don’t end up spending all your free time staring at a screen, and so that you don’t expend too much energy taking on other people’s worries as well. This could leave you feeling even more tired and emotionally depleted.

Be mindful of screen time.

Here’s your reminder to be careful what media you consume to protect your mental health. “Stay informed but moderate the time you spend listening to news reports and make sure that you stick to fact-based information,” Dr. Levine says.

Try an energizing meditation technique.

We don’t know how things will turn out, and that uncertainty is scary and draining. “Look at what you can control and what you can’t,” Pinkham says. “Resist the temptation to ignore or distract yourself from what’s worrying you. It’s normal to be anxious, don’t feel bad about that, but there are things that you can do to get it out of your head.”

One way to do that? Mindfulness is a powerful tool to manage stress, so you may find meditation extremely helpful right now. One mindful exercise that only takes a few minutes is breathwork. “Make a conscious effort to focus on your breathing at regular times throughout the day,” Dr. Ramlakhan says. “Slow down and lengthen your exhale; inhale long and low into your belly and repeat this a few times. You’ll find this a much more effective pick-me-up than coffee.”

Look on the bright side.

We’re living through a crisis, there’s no way around that. But if your mind is consumed with the state of the world 24/7, you won’t be able to cope. “Find the silver linings,” Dr. Levine says. “With more time, you can take up a new hobby or pastime” — whether it’s baking, knitting, or picking up an instrument you haven’t touched in years. Be conscious about noticing the things that bring you joy, and make them a priority whenever you can.

Be kind to yourself.

Remember: We're not working from home under normal circumstances, we're at home, stuck inside, trying to work during an incredibly stressful time, Pinkham says. Try problem-solving by asking yourself what you can do to feel less tired. “After that, accept that you probably aren’t going to feel [like] yourself at the moment,” Pinkham says.

Dr. Levine agrees: now is not the time to tick off every item on your to-do list. “Allow yourself some slack,” she says. “This might mean taking a short nap if you really feel tired or doing the laundry tomorrow if you’re too fatigued today. It’s normal to have energy peaks and valleys during a long-term crisis like this.”

The coronavirus pandemic is unfolding in real time, and guidelines change by the minute. We promise to give you the latest information at time of publishing, but please refer to the CDC and WHO for updates.