Credit: 123rf

Falling asleep quickly had never been an issue for Mr Lim, a digital marketer, 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 on Wednesday (March 17) found that 51 per cent of Singaporeans have lost sleep over work, finances and Covid-19 related 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 March 19 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.

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.

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.

This article was first published in The Straits Times.