New research shows that 51% of Australians are experiencing worse sleep issues since the pandemic.
The research reveals the pandemic has exacerbated sleep problems among the population, with two thirds of adults having trouble falling asleep or experience disruptive sleep, and half admitting the problem has worsened in the last year. Now, a sleep expert warns these sleep issues could continue to worsen if steps are not taken to resolve them swiftly.
The findings were derived from a survey of an independent panel of 1050 Australian adults, commissioned by Calming Blankets, a blanket, designed to assist individuals who suffer from troubled sleep, stress or sensory conditions that impact sleep quality.
Calming Blankets found that two-thirds (64%) of respondents had trouble falling asleep or experienced disrupted sleep more than two nights a week. Among those respondents, a quarter (25%) experienced these difficulties every night, and 51 per cent said the problem had worsened since the pandemic.
“While it is completely normal for us to spend up to 5% of our total sleep time awake and to have brief awakenings throughout the night, these awakenings are meant to be brief. For some, these awakenings can become prolonged and when this happens in the middle of the night, it can cause anxiety and significant sleep deprivation,” says Consulting Sleep Expert for Calming Blankets, Dr Carmel Harrington, an internationally recognised sleep scientist and an Honorary Research Fellow at Sydney Children’s Hospital Westmead.
“If a person is experiencing this for any length of time it can become habit-forming, so that as soon as they wake up, they are instantly alert and anxious about their ability to get back to sleep. As many of us have experienced, as soon as we start to become anxious about getting to sleep, sleep becomes ever more elusive,” says Dr Harrington.
The findings also reveal that, on a night when their sleep is poor, half (49%) of Australians only manage up to three hours of uninterrupted sleep, while 27% say they sleep for four hours uninterrupted.
When asked about their sleep on a good night, 62% revealed they sleep only up to five hours uninterrupted, while just 17% experience more than seven hours of uninterrupted sleep.
Dr Harrington adds: “Generally among the population, adults aren’t getting sufficient sleep. Unfortunately, over the last several decades, our average sleep time has decreased from eight hours to just six hours per night, particularly during the working week. However, adults require seven to nine hours of sleep each night. Without adequate sleep, they can run into a plethora of health risks, including a weakened immune system, poor memory and concentration, fatigue, and a number of chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease.”
Among the respondents who said they have experienced disruptive sleep or had trouble falling asleep, half (51%) revealed the problem had worsened in the last year. Dr Harrington believes the Covid pandemic is largely the reason for this, given the considerable impact it has had on people’s lives.
“For many of us, this has been a time of great anxiety brought about by significant financial and health concerns. Combine this with the overall demands of the modern lifestyle, including 24-hour access to the internet and increasingly demanding work schedules, and sleep deprivation has become a widespread issue. Research also shows that anxiety is one of the primary causes of lack of sleep, causing difficulties in both sleep initiation and maintenance.”
Despite attempts to do so, two-thirds (68%) of those with sleep issues had been unable to solve the problem. Dr Harrington adds: “Sleep issues can become worse, and harder to resolve, when left too long without being addressed. The sooner sleep issues are addressed, the better. We can often sabotage our own sleep without realising, by overstimulating our minds and bodies before bed,” says Dr Harrington.
Five tips for Australians to get a good night’s sleep:
- Determine your sleep schedule: It is important to have a clear idea of how much sleep you’re getting to adjust your routine accordingly. Start by recording the time you sleep and the time you wake up, and record any long periods during the night that you wake up. You want to determine whether there is consistency in the number of hours you sleep each day, and whether you are keeping a regular sleeping and waking time. If there is more than one or two hours difference in the amount of sleep during the week compared with the weekend, then you may not be getting enough sleep. Another sign your sleep is insufficient is if you rely on your alarm to wake you, overuse caffeine or feel tired in the afternoon or early evening.
- Keep a sleep diary to pinpoint the cause of your sleep problem: How well you sleep is often dependent on your activity during your wakeful hours. Record everything you eat, how much you exercise and what you’re doing during the day and evening over a two-week period. This will help you uncover what is keeping you awake. Once these activities are recorded, any association between sleep, food, exercise and behaviours will become clearer and you’ll be able to see patterns emerge that you can address. For example, if you find that on days where you exercise you fall asleep more quickly and experience better quality sleep, you can make the conscious effort to exercise every day. On the other hand, you may see an association between eating a big meal at night and difficulty falling asleep and can change your pattern of eating as a result.
- Avoid stimulation before bed: Exercising too close to bedtime, generally within three hours, is not advisable, as it often wakes up the body. Certain foods, such as red and processed meat, cheese, soy products and spicy foods, can also impact your ability to sleep. I recommend avoiding these after 6pm. It is also important to avoid other stimulants, such as caffeinated drinks or nicotine, after 12pm. I also recommend avoiding alcohol, as it can interfere with the processes of sleep. It is also important to avoid mental stimulation before bed, including watching TV, reading complex material or trying to solve a difficult problem.
- Establish a consistent bedtime routine: Practising good sleep hygiene is fundamental to quality sleep. Consider establishing a consistent routine whereby you wind down and maintain a calm environment one to two hours before bed. It is important to keep lighting dim throughout your home and avoid technology before bed as well. You could also consider having a hot shower or engaging in relaxation exercise, such as yoga or meditation, before bed. I also recommend keeping your bedroom cool, dark and quiet and ensuring you have a comfortable mattress and bedding.
- Use weight to aid sleep: The pressure from using heavier bed covers or blankets can help calm the mind and place the nervous system into ‘rest mode’. This decreases the body’s fight or flight response, easing anxiety. Firm weight over the body can also help induce sleep faster, as it prevents tossing and turning, and triggers the release of oxytocin – the hormone responsible for regulating sleep. Ensure that the method you choose to apply weight to your body, such as a weighted blanket, accounts for 10 per cent of your body weight.