Sleep Uncovered Part 2: How Anxiety and Loneliness Impacted Sleep Over the Last Two Years

By: SleepScore Labs  |  March 14th, 2022

Many people have felt lonely or anxious at one point or more in their lives. However, the COVID-19 pandemic, lockdown measures, movement restrictions, excessive social media use, quarantine experiences, and misinformation and rumors about the disease contributed to the prevalence of these emotional problems.

Anxiety and loneliness are issues that may impact a person’s sleep health. Plus, as a person’s sleep quality depreciates, their risk of having these issues increases.

SleepScore Labs and have published the Sleep Uncovered report that analyzed sleep data and wellness from 134,885 U.S. adults across 3,501,167 nights, along with an additional survey of 2,855 adults, to compare pre-pandemic sleep habits (January to March 2020) with pandemic periods (March 2020 to date). You can check out the entire report here to uncover the entire story of how our sleep changed over the last two years.

One striking observation uncovered included insights around our loneliness and anxiety levels among certain groups like parents and students.

Keep reading to learn more about loneliness and anxiety, how the pandemic contributed to these issues, the relationship between loneliness, anxiety, and sleep, and how to manage anxiety symptoms and loneliness.

How is loneliness defined?

Loneliness is a feeling that occurs when a person feels disconnected from others or cannot meet their need for social connection or relationship. 

Loneliness is usually associated with being alone. While isolation or reduced social interactions may contribute to this feeling, people may also feel disconnected from the people around them.

Loneliness is an experience that prevails across all age groups. Research suggests that up to 80% of people below 18 and 40% of adults above 65 have felt lonely at least once in their lives. 

Although not recognized as a mental disorder, this emotion may contribute to suicidal ideation, depression, anxiety, alcohol use disorder, dementia, Alzheimer’s, heart diseases, poor immune function, personality disorders, and sleep problems

Our loneliness levels during the pandemic

According to the report analysis, loneliness levels increased most among students and parents during the pandemic. 

Of 2,483 people surveyed, 21% said they felt lonely most days (four to six days), while 5% said they felt lonely always. Before the pandemic, just 5% felt lonely most days, with 2% reporting feeling lonely every day.

In contrast, more than half of the people surveyed reported that they didn’t experience loneliness at all before the pandemic. Now, only 33% report not feeling lonely on any day.

Additionally, researchers of a 2020 study noted that factors such as young age, being female, low socioeconomic status, pre-existing mental illness, poor sleep quality, self-isolating, and living alone were associated with an increased risk of loneliness.

Experts also note that social distancing and isolation—which are critical measures for slowing down the spread of COVID-19—are associated with adverse psychological conditions, including loneliness. With movement restrictions, people are less likely to feel close to others and cannot physically interact with people to feel less lonely. 

How is anxiety defined?

Anxiety is an emotion that occurs due to fear, worry, pressure, or stress. It’s usually characterized by physical and behavioral changes like restlessness, tension, sweating, increased heart rate and blood pressure, nervousness, and trembling. 

Anxiety may come from using certain medications, worrying about finances, exams, a job interview, or relationship problems.

Anxiety disorders occur when a person feels overwhelmingly and persistently anxious, affecting their day-to-day life.

Anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and various phobia-related disorders, are the most common mental illnesses in people.

Our anxiety levels during the pandemic

Just 7% said they felt lonely most days or every day before COVID, while during the pandemic, that number jumped to 26%.

When we overlay those who self-identify as parents or students, we see more trends of loneliness in these two groups. Our report shows that parents felt more anxiety than non-parents during the pandemic, with stay-at-home parents showing the worst self reported sleep quality during the pandemic compared their working counterparts

Students reported feelings of loneliness more than any other group, and in fact, their loneliness increased during the pandemic compared to the general population too. 

Findings of a 2020 study suggest that anxiety levels may be three times higher compared to prepandemic times. 

According to the study, risk factors that may contribute to anxiety include being female, younger age, being married, social isolation, unemployment, being a student, poor financial status, low education status, and inadequate knowledge of COVID-19. 

Similarly, a 2021 study suggests that anxiety and depression symptoms doubled in children and teenagers during the pandemic. The researchers hypothesize that lack of interactions with friends, isolation, reduced contact with support systems like teachers, family financial difficulties, and not making achievement milestones may have increased prevalence.

Interestingly, a 2021 study found that places that experienced the most impact of the virus also had tremendous anxiety and depression prevalence. They also observed an additional 76·2 million anxiety disorders cases worldwide.

The relationship between anxiety, loneliness, and sleep quality

Anxiety and loneliness are psychological problems that may affect a person’s sleep health. When people feel anxious or lonely, they may have difficulty falling asleep or having a well-rested night.

Researchers of a study noted that when people feel lonely, they may also feel more vulnerable and vigilant, hindering their ability to wind down and have a good night’s rest. The study found that loneliness is associated with subjective poor sleep quality and daytime dysfunction. 

The relationship between loneliness and sleep is bidirectional.  Evidence suggests that ​​loneliness may trigger vigilance from feeling vulnerability, impairing sleep quality. On the other hand, poor sleep may lead to anger, confusion, and irritability, making a person limit social interaction or feel isolated.

A review on social isolation and sleep observed that covid-19 related loneliness from social isolation contributed to sleep and sleep habits changes. People who reported feeling lonely also reported experiencing less sleep and poor sleep quality. Plus, a lack of social support may diminish a person’s ability to develop healthy sleep habits. 

Similarly, anxiety may trigger restlessness, nervousness, arousal, and other symptoms that may adversely affect a person’s ability to relax and fall and stay asleep.

Our report found that people feeling anxious about their health and the health of their loved ones contributed to feeling sleepless and not being well-rested during the pandemic.

Sleep problems are usually primary symptoms of anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

On the flip side, a 2016 study suggests that sleep problems like insomnia may contribute to mood and anxiety disorders. It also found that anxiety strongly correlates with insomnia, poor sleep quality, and daytime sleepiness. The researchers also noted the importance of addressing anxiety issues when treating sleep problems.

Managing anxiety and loneliness

Anxiety and loneliness may have debilitating consequences on a person’s health. Finding strategies that may help you cope with them may benefit your sleep quality and other aspects of your life.

Engaging in activities that increase social interactions like joining a book club, registering in a yoga class, taking dance lessons, participating in sports activities, volunteering, adopting a pet may help alleviate feelings of loneliness.

Also, consider seeing a therapist who can work with you to identify the underlying cause of the loneliness and help you build strategies to deal with it effectively.

If loneliness starts affecting your sleep, see a doctor for appropriate medical intervention. 

Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, aromatherapy, journaling, meditation, listening to calm music, and yoga and increasing physical activity may help manage anxiety symptoms.

Psychotherapy and anti-anxiety medications are treatment options for anxiety. If you experience anxiety symptoms that affect daily activities, consult a doctor.

Want more insights on how we slept before and during the pandemic? Check out the entire Sleep Uncovered report here, and explore Part 1 and Part 3 of our in-depth exploration of the report. 

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