Sleeping well
Te moe pai

Most of us will be familiar with the effects of a poor night’s sleep – fatigue, irritability, problems with attention, memory, and trouble coping with the stresses of daily life. Everyone experiences bad nights now and then, but getting caught in a cycle of poor sleep can be especially frustrating, particularly when you are under stress.

Why is sleep important?

Stress influences your quality of sleep and a lack of sleep can aggravate levels of stress, causing you to become more tense, irritable, and anxious. And lack of sleep can affect you physically too, when you are deprived of deep sleep your immune system also tends to be suppressed.

People vary in the amount of sleep they need.  Most adults require 7-8 hours of sleep, comprising 4-5 ninety-minute cycles. These cycles are important because our bodies rejuvenate themselves in the deep sleep phase of the cycles. 

Your body will tell you what's right for you; pay attention to how you feel in the morning, after more or less sleep, and then make an effort to get the amount of sleep that's right for you.

Learn more from Dan Ford about the stages of sleep. Dan is a Sleep and Performance Psychologist and former Defence Psychologist.

  • Intro to sleep stages
  • What is stage 1 sleep?
  • What is stage 2 sleep?
  • What is stage 3 sleep?
  • What is REM sleep?
  • What are sleep cycles?
  • Why is sleep important?
  • How much sleep should I be getting?
  • How is sleep measured?
  • How does sleep affect brain health?
  • How does sleep affect metabolic health?
  • Does sleep affect weight management?
  • Does sleep affect learning memory?
  • Does sleep affect heart health?

What's poor sleep?

Almost everyone has trouble sleeping occasionally, but not getting enough sleep for a few nights here and there is nothing to worry about. On the other hand, sleep problems that last for weeks or even months at a time can really interfere with your health, work, and social life.

Most adults need about 7 to 9 hours sleep a night, although the ideal amount differs from person to person. Sleep problems can be caused by any number of things, and the nature of military service can also contribute to them. For example, long periods of ‘picket’ duty during the night can have a lasting impact on sleep routines. Then, once you start having trouble sleeping, bad habits and worrying thoughts about sleep can fuel the problem.

Sleep has two dimensions:

  • Duration (quantity)
  • Depth (quality)

When you don’t get enough (quantity) deep (quality) sleep, daytime alertness and function suffer. This means that even if you have a long sleep that is of poor quality, you will not necessarily wake refreshed and able to function properly.

What causes poor sleep?

What to look for

The most common sleep problem is insomnia, where you don’t get enough sleep or your sleep is not restful. If you regularly have trouble sleeping, feel tired during the day, and find that you have trouble concentrating or getting along with other people, it’s possible you’re suffering from insomnia. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you have trouble falling or staying asleep? Do you find that you don’t feel refreshed when you wake?
  • Does your lack of sleep cause problems with attention, concentration, or memory? Are you constantly tired or grumpy? Does your lack of sleep make it hard for you to do your work, get along with other people, or take care of things at home?
  • Have you had trouble sleeping on more nights than not, for several months or more?

If you answered yes to these questions, you may benefit from trying some of the following tips for improving your sleeping habits. If you have been suffering from sleep problems for a very long time, or your sleep problems cause you a lot of distress, it might be worth talking to your doctor or other health professional. It is important to remember, sleep deprivation can be dangerous for you, your family, your work colleagues and other people.

Why am I having trouble sleeping?

Sleep problems could also be related to any of a number of mental or physical health problems. For example, depression can result in too much or too little sleep, and people with anxiety disorders will often lie awake worrying. Also, symptoms that are sometimes associated with post traumatic stress disorder, like nightmares or feeling constantly on guard, will disrupt sleep patterns.

Or it could be that you are suffering from serious pain that makes it difficult to sleep, and in turn, lack of sleep can make the pain worse, creating a vicious cycle of pain and poor sleep. Too much alcohol or other drug use can also interfere with sleep.

You can find more information on these problems and their treatment, by clicking the links in the text above.

Improving sleep habits

The way we sleep is a very habitual thing, once you are used to sleeping a certain way, that’s how you will continue. The good news is bad sleep habits can be broken just as easily as they are formed. The first step is to recognise these habits (keeping a sleep diary can help), and then to choose a strategy that will help you change them.

Bad sleep habits Good sleep habits
Too much activity or stimulation before bed Spend 30 minutes doing something non-stressful before going to bed, and avoid exercise for 3 hours before going to sleep.
Irregular sleep routines Try to go to bed at the same time most nights (it will become a signal for your body that it is time for sleep), and get up at the same time most mornings.
Napping during the day Avoid naps. If you have to nap, keep it short (less than 20 minutes), and don't nap after mid-afternoon.
Other activities in bed (e.g. watching TV or being on electronic devices) Use your bed only for sleep and sex, and reading material that is not too stimulating.
Lying awake for hours and worrying If you don't fall asleep in about 20 minutes, get up and go to another room until you're sleepy, then try again. Reading a book can help distract you from the worry.
Consuming caffeine late in the evening Avoid coffee, tea, cocoa, cola drinks after about 4pm.
Drinking alcohol in the evening Don't have any alcohol for several hours before going to bed (alcohol might help you get to sleep, but causes a disrupted sleep pattern as you tend to wake up 2 - 3 hours later).
Smoking a lot Smoking or vaping (nicotine) will make you more alert. You may also have breathing-related sleep disturbances, caused by long-term smoking (such as sleep apnoea). Avoid smoking as much as possible and consider giving up. 
Frequent use of sleeping pills Avoid frequent use, as you can become dependent on them, which will end up disturbing your sleep further.

Activities to improving sleep

Get Help

If you’ve tried the strategies above and you are still having problems with sleep, you might benefit from getting additional support. A doctor is always a good place to start when trying to overcome sleep problems. They can help you to understand your particular problem with sleep, and refer you to an appropriate specialist for further assessment if necessary.