Since coming back from college, I’ve begun shifting to a nocturnal schedule. In college, I had a typical schedule: waking up for 9 am classes and going to sleep sometime past midnight after working on papers and homework. But today, in light of the pandemic, I find myself waking up at 5 pm and going to sleep at around 9 am. Despite my parents’ confusion, it turns out that I’m not the only one curling up to sleep at the first sign of daylight.

Many of my fellow college friends are also going through a similar pattern or nocturnal sleeping, and it turns out among teenagers and younger adults, this sleep cycle is not strange. In fact, neuroscience research suggests that even without the pandemic, this is a perfectly normal situation.

Sleep schedules are based on sleep-wake homeostasis and the circadian rhythm. Sleep-wake homeostasis, like a countdown timer, is the accumulation of sleep pressure. The longer we’re awake, the more likely we are to fall asleep. On the other hand, the circadian rhythm is more like a clock, adjusting our bodies to light-dark cycles. 

But teenagers don’t feel sleep pressure as much and are, in fact, more sensitive to light. So in the case of COVID-19 and the fall season, teenagers are finding sunlight comes up a little later and the demand to sleep is also just not the same as during regular school systems. According to psychologist Nigel Latta, “Don’t worry if they live the vampire lifestyle of young people.”

However, even for those of us who aren’t teenagers, there is still a good reason that we might be living “vampiric lifestyles.” 

Some research would suggest that, without the pressures of the pre-pandemic day-to-day lifestyle, most of us would return to sleeping from midnight to 8 ama typical, healthy sleep cycle. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re finding that doesn’t actually hold true. 

Instead, with so many of us staying indoors, social distancing, and working from our computers, new stresses are shaping our sleep cycle patterns. With less regular exercise outdoors and turning to our online screens indoors, our regular exposure to light is no longer the same, affecting our melatonin and circadian rhythm. As a result, some of us may be turning to a nocturnal sleep schedule.

“There is depression, loneliness, anxiety and all of that undermines the ability to sleep,” said Dr. David Neubauer, associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

There are a lot of possible solutions that have been thrown up in the air. Most of this involves maintaining a regular schedule, even during the pandemic. Find ways to exercise outside and avoiding too much screen time at night, or change your diet to avoid coffee and alcohol. Some even recommend melatonin or natural sleep aids such as chamomile tea. 

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But for myself, I’m finding that trying to impose so many strict schedules and rules becomes more of a stressor on me. I like my coffee, dancing in my room, and yes, staying up late so that I’m the only person in my house when I’m reading and listening to music. So stop guilting your body for adjusting to a strange time. You can’t try to get rid of the stress weighing on your sleep cycle, by adding more pressure to fix that stress.

Be kind to your body, take a breath, and relax. Enjoy the nighttime a little bit, and maybe your sleep schedule will come.

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  • Helena Ong

    Helena Ong is a freelance writer and journalist from San Francisco, California. In the past, she's worked at San Francisco Public Press, World Policy Journal, and NBC4 Los Angeles. She graduated from Pomona College, where she served as Production Editor for her college newspaper, The Student Life.

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