'What if my brain just won’t turn off?': Every single question you have about sleep, answered.

If you spoke to anyone you know right now, and asked, “Are you sleeping well?” The answer would more than likely be no.

With the COVID-19 pandemic affecting all of us in more ways than one, and the ever-changing updates and restrictions coming in constantly, the sense of uncertainty and lingering anxiety makes it near impossible to switch off at the end of the day.

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According to a recent survey of over 2000 Australians by the Australian Sleep Foundation, 60 per cent of the population is experiencing at least one symptom of insomnia three or more times every week. That includes things like trouble falling and staying asleep, exhaustion, memory impairment, attention problems, irritability, hyperactivity, aggression or a lack of motivation.

And that was before coronavirus.

So in a time where days are stressful and sleep is the best possible place to push the worry aside, how can we do it better?

In search of the answers, Mamamia‘s daily news podcast, The Quicky, spoke to Dr Amy Reynolds, a sleep researcher and senior lecturer at CQUniversity.


How much sleep do adults really need?

“It sounds like it should be a simple question, and it’s often the one that people ask and want and magical number that they can achieve and everything will be fine,” Dr Reynolds said.

“What we know now is that sleep is quite complex and it’s different from person to person. So while the National Sleep Foundation recommends about seven to nine hours for an adult, what we know is it’s not just about those numbers or those hours of sleep. It’s actually about the quality of your sleep and when you’re getting it that matters.”

(In other words, one person who has five or six hours of quality sleep may fare better than someone who tosses and turns for eight.)

What’s the difference between insomnia and just getting a bad night’s sleep?

“One of the things that really defines insomnia is how chronic it is or how long it’s been going on for.

“So what we see in people who have insomnia is that they’re experiencing trouble falling asleep or trouble staying asleep, they’re feeling the consequences of that the next day and they’re feeling it most days of the week for more than three months, even when they’ve got enough time or opportunity to get the sleep that they need.”

What causes insomnia?

“We’re all quite different in what affects our sleep. And that makes it really hard to provide education and awareness for everybody, because the message is often quite different — what affects you and your sleep might be a little bit different to what affects mine.

“But it seems that one of the things that comes up quite consistently and that is linked to a lot of the reasons for insomnia — like [being] worried about your job or if you’re suffering from depression or your socioeconomic status — is the stress that’s involved with that.”


Listen: For more of Dr Reynolds’ advice, listen to the full epsiode of The Quicky.

Do phones and screens impact sleep?

“We do know that there is a link between using tech at night and poor sleep, particularly if that technology is waking us at night.

“But also if that technology is stopping us from getting to sleep; if we’re pushing it out, saying, ‘I’ll just watch another episode’, or ‘I’ll just chat this person for a little bit longer’. If it’s intruding on our sleep time then I think it’s an issue.

“We also have the issue of light. So we know from some work from the group at Monash [University] this year that different people have different sensitivity to light. Light is a cue to the body that we should be awake and not asleep. So if you’re someone who’s really sensitive to light, then potentially you’re telling your body to be awake at night when you should be getting ready for sleep. In that case, having lots of lights on or having your phone in front of you may be a little bit more disturbing than it is for someone who’s not quite as sensitive. ”

Is there something that can help?

Since we’re all at home right now, constantly checking our phones for coronavirus updates or bingeing television to distract ourselves from reality, our eyes and brain are switched on. Meaning, sooner or later headaches will set in throughout the day and our minds simply won’t be able to shut off at night. So, we suggest wearing a pair of blue light blocking glasses throughout the day, (because we all know that limiting screen time is not the answer right now) so our eyes get a break, and once it’s time to sleep our mind will actually get the chance to.


What if you can’t avoid having disturbed sleep?

“There are circumstances like new parents and shift work where we’re not getting sleep at the ideal time of day and it’s happening for a period of time. We can’t just say, ‘You need a good 10:00 pm to 6:00 am sleep and everything’s going to get better.’

“I think it’s more about recognising, ‘Well, I’m not at my best. Last night was a particularly bad night with the baby. What do I need to do to feel better? Can I nap? Can I avoid being out on the road? Is there someone can come and help?’

“It’s about then recognising the signs and symptoms of not just not having enough sleep, but really hitting that limit as well.”

What are your tips for how to sleep better?

  • “No tech an hour before bed.”
  • “Try to set your bedtime.”
  • “Avoid coffee after lunchtime. That’s a big one to some people, because caffeine can stay in your blood for a really long time.”
  • “Most of all, prioritising sleep is important. We talk about diet, we talk about exercise and keeping moving — sleep is just as important.”

But what if your brain just won’t turn off?

“If you are lying there in bed and you’re feeling increasingly frustrated that you can’t get off to sleep, picking up a book and sitting in a dim room and reading for a little while [can be helpful]. Trying to do another activity that’s quiet, listening to podcasts or listening to meditation, can also be a good idea. You don’t have to just lie there for a long period of time worrying; you can do some of those other activities to distract and wind down.

“If this is happening all the time for you, one of the things that can really help and is recommended is cognitive behaviour therapy for insomnia. It’s something you can discuss with your GP. And a referral to a sleep specialist.”

The above is general information only. If you are consistently having difficulty sleeping, consult your GP for personalised advice.

Feature image: Getty.