Living Well Covid-19 insomnia

Losing sleep over pandemic

More people have been seeking help for insomnia since the circuit breaker, say doctors

Falling asleep quickly had never been an issue for Mr Lim, a digital marketeer, but for more than three months last year, the 32-year-old took at least two hours to doze off on some nights.

His sleeplessness began in August, when he learnt about a looming retrenchment exercise in his company.

He went to bed at 11pm but took hours to fall asleep, before waking up at 4am and finding it difficult to fall asleep again.

As a result, he felt lethargic and irritable and found it hard to concentrate at work during the day.

"I was worried sick about losing my job during the Covid-19 pandemic, and the lack of interaction with colleagues made me feel alone since I was working from home," says Mr Lim, who declines to give his full name.

He eventually took a pay cut to keep his job.

Mr Lim is among those whose sleep routine has been disrupted during the pandemic.

A global sleep study by health technology company Philips released today found that 51 per cent of Singaporeans have lost sleep over work, finances and Covid-19related news.

The survey, conducted from Nov 17 to Dec 7 last year, polled 13,000 adults across 13 places including the United States, Australia, Britain and China. It also surveyed 1,000 participants from Singapore, of which 27 per cent were found to have insomnia, up from 25 per cent in the same survey in 2019.

Doctors that The Straits Times spoke to ahead of World Sleep Day on Friday have seen an increase in patients seeking help for insomnia since last year.

Coronasomnia - the amalgamation of the words "coronavirus" and "insomnia" - has even been coined to describe how the pandemic has made it difficult for people to get a good night's sleep.

  • 5 tips for better sleep

  • 1. KEEP A REGULAR ROUTINE: It can be tempting to sleep in, especially if you work or study from home, but try to keep to the same schedule as if you were going to the office or school. Use the time saved from commuting to exercise or do breathing exercises instead. These reduce stress and release endorphins that can help to combat symptoms of depression.

    2. PRACTISE GOOD SLEEP HYGIENE: This includes maintaining a regular sleep-and-wake schedule and using the bedroom only for sleep. If you must work in your bedroom, avoid working from your bed. When it is time to sleep, clear out your desk or items associated with work, such as your files or laptop.

    3. GET SOME SUNLIGHT: Doing this daily can help regulate the sleep-wake cycle. At night, close the curtains or blinds when you go to sleep. Open them when you wake up.

    4. REDUCE SCREEN TIME: The blue light produced by electronic devices can interfere with the body's production of melatonin, a sleep-promoting hormone released at night.

    Using electronic devices just before bedtime may stimulate the mind, making it harder to fall asleep. Leave mobile devices in a separate room and schedule time for activities such as reading and mindfulness practices prior to bedtime. This will help regulate emotions and thoughts and make it easier for you to fall asleep.

    5. FIND WAYS TO RELAX: If you experience anxiety when trying to sleep, do deep breathing and muscle relaxation exercises. You can also try the guided imagery technique, where you imagine peaceful settings in an effort to feel more relaxed. These psychological techniques are regularly used to help people counter feelings of anxiety and get a good night's sleep.

    • Source: Dr Annabelle Chow, principal clinical psychologist at Annabelle Psychology

Dr Seng Kok Han, a consultant psychiatrist at Nobel Psychological Wellness Centre, says it is natural for people to worry about jobs, financial security and the health and safety of themselves and their loved ones during the pandemic.

"These new-found sources of worry may cause higher levels of fear, anxiety and even depression, keeping individuals up at night," says Dr Seng, who notes a 15 to 20 per cent increase in insomnia cases at his clinic since May last year.

Changes in daily routines, coupled with blurred boundaries between professional and personal lives while people work or study from home, have also led many to work and sleep at irregular hours.

For instance, Dr Seng has a patient who was unable to fall asleep at night because he was working till the wee hours and taking multiple naps during the day while working from home, perpetuating "a vicious circle of insomnia".

Dr Pang Yoke Teen, a senior ear, nose and throat consultant at Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre, says a person's circadian rhythm or body clock is disrupted when work and sleep schedules are thrown into disarray. "This can affect the rejuvenation of sleep which the body needs to repair itself."

He has seen a 15 per cent rise in insomnia cases after the circuit breaker last year.

Principal clinical psychologist Annabelle Chow of Annabelle Psychology also notes a gradual increase in complaints from her patients about sleep problems since March last year.

She says: "Being in quarantine and social distancing can cut people off from family and friends, and trigger symptoms of depression and a variety of sleep problems. Those who experienced greater social isolation reported more symptoms of insomnia and shorter sleep duration."

Besides insomnia, another sleep disorder observed during the pandemic is delayed sleep phase syndrome, says Dr Seng.

It is a disorder in which a person's sleep pattern is delayed for two hours or more from a conventional sleep pattern, causing one to go to sleep and wake later.

One of Dr Seng's patients, a 17-year-old student, slept a lot, but still woke up feeling exhausted the next day. This was during the circuit breaker, when the teen did not have to attend school and began delaying his bedtime gradually.

He enjoyed being awake at night as it was quieter and he would surf the Internet and play computer games until 5am, and often wake up only around 2 or 3pm. He felt tired despite having slept for 10 hours and could not fall asleep even when he was tired.

Doctors interviewed say getting sufficient sleep is essential for people to build a strong immune system. Prolonged periods of poor sleep can take a toll on health and cause conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases, anxiety and depression.

Dr Seng advises people who are experiencing insomnia continuously to seek professional help. Treatment options include cognitive behavioural therapy and the prescription of sleeping pills.

Recharge with naps and more

Now that you are working more often from home, is it a good idea to catch up on sleep with a lunchtime nap?

For sure, research has shown that short daytime naps can reduce fatigue, boost alertness and improve mood and performance.

Dr Seng Kok Han, a consultant psychiatrist at Nobel Psychological Wellness Centre, says a quick nap may serve as a useful pick-me-up.

"Naps may be especially useful if you did not get a good night's rest or for night-shift workers to help them stay alert during their work hours," he adds.

But napping is not for everyone.

For those who have trouble sleeping at night, taking naps may make it worse.

Some may also experience sleep inertia, where they feel groggy after waking up from a nap, which is not ideal if they have to jump right back into work, he says.

Dr John Cheng, head of primary care at Healthway Medical Group, says there are a variety of naps with different benefits.

For instance, people can take a power nap when they suffer from sleep deprivation the night before, due to a late night or disrupted sleep.

A prophylactic nap, on the other hand, is usually taken in preparation for sleep loss. This may apply to those who work the night shift. Taking such naps before their shifts helps prevent sleepiness and ensure they stay alert while working, says Dr Cheng.

An essential nap is for people who have fallen sick. "When we're feeling under the weather, our immune system requires greater energy to effectively fight against the virus and encourage recovery. Therefore, naps taken when we're sick are considered essential," he says.

To get the best out of naps, Dr Seng advises limiting their duration to an hour.

"This provides the body with the necessary recovery benefits without leaving the person feeling groggy afterwards."

He also suggests taking naps earlier in the afternoon, preferably before 3pm, as any time after that may interfere with sleep at night.

If you feel sleepy during the day but cannot take a nap, he suggests alternative ways to recharge:


Taking a quick walk encourages blood circulation, leaving you more energised.

If time permits, take a walk outside your office or home and soak in the afternoon sun, which can be useful in countering midday sleepiness.


Constantly staring at the screen can cause eye fatigue.

To prevent sleepiness during the day, take a break periodically by looking out of the window, ideally at greenery (above). This helps relax the eyes.


A quick lunchtime workout or exercising before you start your day can help reduce fatigue and provide an energy boost.

Regular exercise also helps you get a better night's rest and feel more refreshed during the day.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 17, 2021, with the headline Losing sleep over pandemic . Subscribe