If you log on to any social media platform in the early hours of the morning you are likely to find a lot of people online.

Since the country went into lockdown due to Covid-19 a few weeks ago, South Africans have been struggling to fall asleep.

Prof Pieter Kruger, a consultant clinical psychologist and director of the NWU’s Centre for Health and Human Performance (CHHP), gives insight into why so many people are suffering from insomnia.

According to Prof Kruger, with all the uncertainty, stress and anxiety linked to Covid-19, it is no surprise people are struggling to sleep. Our brains do not deal well with uncertainty.

He states that during times of uncertainty, a part in the brain called the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) registers the uncertainty as an error or a gap, which tells the brain to be on high alert, because something could be wrong.

He adds that, from an evolutionary perspective, the uncertainty means that there could be imminent danger around, which in turn switches the brain into self-preservation mode. Once this happens, it activates the brain’s emotional processing centre (limbic system), which triggers cortisol (the stress hormone) and adrenaline, which will help the body to prepare to fight or run.

“The very purpose of these substances being secreted into the body is to keep us awake and alert to deal with potential threats. As a result, this interferes with our ability to fall asleep or stay asleep.”

The consequences of not sleeping.

Prof Kruger states that lack of sleep can have significant biochemical and psychological consequences. One of the better-known short-term effects of sleep deprivation is forgetfulness. “Not getting enough sleep affects not only your working memory, but also affects the human attention system, which helps you to focus and to comprehend what is in front of you.”

He adds that lack of sleep also affects one’s cognitive processing speed and mood regulation, and long-term sleep deprivation can have an influence on the testosterone levels of men and affect virility in women. He states that it is important to aim for an average of seven or eight hours of sleep a night on a regular basis.

Prof Kruger’s tips to sleep better during lockdown:

 

·         Learn how to deal with and defuse the anxiety: get a good self-help book or speak to a psychologist.

·         Maintain good sleep hygiene and a night-time routine: stop reading or watching the news before you go to bed, as this fuels the uncertainty and creates anxiety.

·         Avoid blue-spectrum light before you go to bed: mobile phones, tablets and laptops radiate high levels of blue-spectrum light. Exposure to this type of light tricks your brain into thinking that it is still daytime.

·         Structure your day: try to go to bed at roughly the same time every night and try to get up at the same time.

·         Be physically active: try to walk for 3 to 5 minutes on the hour.

·         Do not panic about not being able to sleep: even if you are just lying in bed, your body and brain are still recovering.