COVID-somnia is ruining students’ schedules

As student routines change due to COVID-19, many are noticing disturbances in their sleep schedules. Experts attribute “COVID-somnia” to anxiety surrounding the pandemic, such as feeling helpless in the face of a global crisis. While students at McGill lead efforts to combat these mental health difficulties, educators and administrators must show support by being accommodating and ensuring that students are not overwhelmed by isolation, despair, and loneliness. 

In addition to McGill’s pre-existing culture that prioritizes academic results over mental well-being, COVID-somnia is a dangerous phenomenon. Research reports that this pandemic-induced sleep deprivation, while sometimes motivated by physiological factors, mainly stems from fear and anxiety caused by the disruption of normal routines. Before the pandemic, students connected with peers at communal spaces on campus, but the social lives of everyone are now limited by measures that prevent gatherings. For some students, this is coupled with a change in living environment, ranging from moving in with roommates that are near-strangers or returning home to family. 

Most instructors offer helpful asynchronous learning options for those in different timezones. Despite this, students have to resist allowing lecture recordings to pile up when they choose to take a break from school work. When the boundary between school and the home is blurred, it becomes difficult to find time and space for relaxation. With unfamiliar and overburdened schedules, students resort to revenge bedtime procrastination, staying up late doing leisure activities because they may feel that time has been exhausted by the mental labour of work-related activities.

To counter COVID-somnia, students can benefit from adopting sleep hygiene practices such as creating a space dedicated to attending “Zoom university.” Humans associate brain function to specific environments, which is why studying in bed can make it harder to fall asleep in it. Meanwhile, course instructors should initiate dialogue with students to identify changes that can be made to mitigate the challenges of online learning. During these unforeseen and stressful circumstances, professors can help alleviate stress by eliminating requirements for medical notes and other forms of proof for those in need of extensions.  

For international students, altering normal sleep cycles is often the only way to engage with classes and virtual student life in real-time. Different time zones and living environments create unequal experiences, and some students face even more barriers to a healthy sleep routine than their peers living in Montreal. 

Effectively living in two time zones amplifies a sense of disconnectedness from university life, which can intensify feelings of loneliness and anxiety. Increased screen time also exposes students to blue light emissions, which interrupt circadian rhythms in the body that sync sleep schedules with outdoor light levels. Coupled with COVID-19 anxiety, these hybrid schedules present unique challenges. Meanwhile, student club events are usually inconvenient for those in most other time zones. Students face the dilemma of choosing between attending the event and having an irregular sleep schedule or sleeping at a time suitable to their time zone but missing out on social engagement. 

This general trend of late timings is largely unaccounted for by student organizers due to a lack of alternatives. Student groups tend to host events after school hours to ensure that those in Montreal are able to attend. To find a solution for international students, student services like International Student Services and the Student Wellness Hub can equip students with the tools to manage new and unusual routines. These services can also serve to connect students going through the same experiences.

When addressing challenges posed by a pandemic, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Consequently, trying to replicate pre-COVID realities is inadequate. Instead, improving morale requires abandoning previous conceptions of academic excellence and fostering an environment where students can prioritize something integral to their functioning—a good night’s sleep.

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