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Sleep in the Time of Plague

Protect yourself and others from coronavirus by sleeping enough.

Photo by Alex Blăjan on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Alex Blăjan on Unsplash

If you love to sleep as much as I do (which is wholeheartedly and unconditionally), I’ve got good news for you: Now is the time to do it and not hold back.

By “now,” I mean the coronavirus pandemic. Getting enough sleep might help you both reduce the risk of infection and increase your chances for a speedy recovery if you do get infected. Moreover, by sleeping enough, you can protect others. Here is how.

Sleep boosts your immune system
The stronger our immune system, the fewer symptoms we get when we catch a virus. Sleep boosts our immunity, whereas sleep deprivation undermines our body’s ability to defend itself. Consider this example: In one study, scientists purposefully exposed healthy volunteers to a common cold virus, but only a fraction of them developed the common cold symptoms.

The amount of sleep the volunteers were getting was a strong predictor of whether or not they would develop the symptoms: The risk of developing a cold was three times higher in those who slept less than seven hours, compared to those who slept eight hours or more per day (Cohen, Doyle, Alper, Janicki-Deverts, & Turner, 2009).

Insufficient sleep increases inflammatory processes in the body, making you more likely to feel unwell and develop a high fever when you get an infection.

Sleep and stress
Millions of people are now estimated to be infected with the coronavirus. Yet, if we think about the mental health consequences of the pandemic – high levels of stress being among the most prominent – the number of affected people is much higher. A good night’s sleep protects us from stress by giving us more resources to navigate disturbing information and overwhelming emotions.

Have you noticed that when you haven’t slept enough, it takes less to drive you off your emotional balance? That negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, or sadness feel more intense and are harder to cope with? That you are more likely to see things in a negative light?

There is a reason for that. Sleep deprivation affects the way different parts of our brain talk to one another. Scientists have proposed that centers of the brain responsible for emotional regulation are better connected – that is to say, doing a better job at teamwork – when we are well-rested than when we are sleep deprived (Gruber & Cassoff, 2014).

To illustrate the teamwork, suppose you are doing something on your computer, and out of the corner of your eye, you notice something black crawling on your window-sill. You shudder and feel a surge of disgust because you think it’s some nasty insect. But when you look at it, you realize it is just a piece of black thread set in motion by the draft from your window. The part of the brain that reappraises the situation calms you down, and your disgust immediately subsides. Now, if you have not slept well, your experience of the disgust may be more intense, and the signal to calm down may be weaker and slower.

The conscious appraisal means everything for how the stress reaction unfolds in the mind and body. When inadequate sleep weakens the communication between the emotional brain centers, our ability to mitigate stress by reappraisal will be compromised. As a result, we will be seeing many more nasty insects (figuratively speaking) where there are none.

Sleep, risky behaviors, and decision-making

Research shows that when we haven't slept enough, not only are we under a greater influence of negative emotions, our decision-making is more affected by our positive emotions, for instance, sense of reward (Gujar, Yoo, Hu, & Walker, 2011). Therefore, when sleep-deprived, we may be more likely to engage in risky behaviors that promise immediate gratification. Right now, for example, this could mean ignoring the recommendation to avoid crowded places and going to the beach to enjoy the nice weather, significantly increasing your risk of exposure to the virus.

Sleep, empathy, and perspective-taking

Many of us are now faced with this dilemma: personal freedom or the collective good? Staying home and social distancing means a certain amount of sacrifices. Not being able to leave the house, the block, or the country is mildly uncomfortable for some and maddening for others. If no one you know has been affected by the virus, it is tempting to start questioning who all those restrictions are serving.

Then there are those at the forefront, whom most of us do not see, working inhumanely long hours, fighting for other people’s lives and losing the battle. And those fighting for their own life and losing the battle.

The willingness to give away some of the personal freedoms requires perspective-taking and empathy towards people whose life and sanity are on the line right now. One needs to see how the decision to exercise the freedom to go to a crowded beach might indirectly contribute to an ICU nurse’s suicide.

And guess what we need to maximize our capacity for empathy and perspective-taking?

You guessed right.

Sleep well. Stay safe.


Cohen, S., Doyle, W. J., Alper, C. M., Janicki-Deverts, D., & Turner, R. B. (2009). Sleep habits and susceptibility to the common cold. Archives of Internal Medicine, 169(1), 62–67.

Gruber, R., & Cassoff, J. (2014). The Interplay Between Sleep and Emotion Regulation: Conceptual Framework Empirical Evidence and Future Directions. Current Psychiatry Reports. Current Medicine Group LLC 1.

Gujar, N., Yoo, S. S., Hu, P., & Walker, M. P. (2011). Sleep deprivation amplifies reactivity of brain reward networks, biasing the appraisal of positive emotional experiences. Journal of Neuroscience, 31(12), 4466–4474.

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