How Can We Improve Our Sleep During Uncertain Times?

Well, that was chaotic.

I was volunteering as a Clinical Psychologist on the Australian Volunteer Program for the past 18 months in Port Vila, Vanuatu. It was meant to be a two-year role, but unfortunately due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the Australian Government suspended the entire volunteer program worldwide and we were forced to come back to Australia on the 20th of March 2020.

Let’s have a look at how my sleep was during this stressful and uncertain time using my Fitbit data:

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By the 15th of March, I had really started to realise how big of an issue Covid-19 was going to be. I had spent most of the Saturday reading up on what was going on around the world and why we should be concerned, and my sleep started to suffer as a result. I spent nearly 9 hours in bed, which is more than usual, but didn’t sleep well. I was asleep for 7.5 hours, which is more than enough, but my sleep efficiency (percentage of time in bed spent sleeping) was only 83%, much lower than my usual 89% average over the prior 30 days. I also obtained less deep sleep and REM sleep than usual, and my overall sleep had 12% more light sleep than I typically obtained.

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My next night of sleep was a bit better, but I slept less as I needed to get up at 6am for work while I was volunteering in Vanuatu. I had a greater percentage of deep sleep and rapid eye movement sleep than the night before, and both were within the recommended ranges for men my age. Not falling asleep until after 11:25 was likely to be caused by my sleep in on Sunday. I tried to enjoy my day, and I think my partner and her daughter and I went swimming at a pool at a local hotel. This would have helped me to get a decent sleep too.

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Monday was the day that the Australian Volunteer Program informed me that they would be suspending the program and that we would all need to book a flight back to Australia before the end of the month. My overall sleep score dropped from good to fair, my total sleep time decreased to under six hours, and my sleep efficiency, REM sleep and deep sleep were all less than my previous 30-day average. Notice the frequent awakenings between 3:30am and 5:40am when I got out of bed. That is not normal for me.

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On the 19th of March at 6:30pm, we were told that we needed to book a flight back to Australia the very next day. I was not prepared for this and did not take it well. After talking with a good friend who worked from Air Vanuatu, I decided to book a ticket on the last flight out of Vanuatu to Brisbane before the Australian borders shut at 9pm. This decision meant that I would have less than 24 hours to say goodbye to my incredible girlfriend and her amazing daughter, and we wouldn’t be able to see each other again until who knows when.

I also had to pack up my life from the past 18 months, tie things up at my work at Vanuatu’s Ministry of Health and at the Mind Care Clinic at Port Vila Central Hospital, and say goodbye to my friends, colleagues and patients if possible. It was too much, and my sleep paid the price. My mind was racing and my chest felt like it was exploding out of my chest. I was very close to experiencing a full-blown panic attack and had some alcohol before sleep to try and calm myself down when slow and deep breathing didn’t work by itself.

The result was my worst sleep score since beginning to use my Fitbit at the end of December 2019. The 61 is considered fair by Fitbit, but it was poor. I didn’t fall asleep until after 11:30 and had a sleep efficiency of 76%, which isn’t good. Being awake for a quarter of the night means that the night can really drag on. I slept less than 5 hours for the first time in over a month. My REM and deep sleep were also less than usual, with my REM sleep being less than recommended for men my age.

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This night was spent in a hotel in Brisbane near the airport and was really restless because I knew that I needed to be back at the airport in the morning to fly to Melbourne at 7:10am. I also had to try and calm down from everything that I had just been through. I rushed around, packed, said goodbye to loved ones, and jumped on a flight in Vanuatu with a very heavy heart. I knew that I could not stay with my volunteer position and visa and insurance being cancelled, but I also didn’t want to go. Not yet. I was meant to finish in mid-August. Instead, I was heading back to Melbourne with no money and no job and lots of uncertainty. I was also heading from a country with no confirmed cases of Coronavirus to a state of emergency in Victoria.

I spent less time awake during the night than the night before, but my sleep score of 64 was quite poor. I had a decent amount of deep sleep, but lots of light sleep and not much REM. It left me feeling pretty tired the next day, but I also knew I was heading into self-quarantine for the next 14 days and would be able to wake and sleep whenever I felt like it.

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My very next night of sleep was my first night of self-quarantine down at my parent’s house. They live near the beach at the start of the Great Ocean Road, and there isn’t much noise at night except for the faint crashing of the waves in the background. No matter how grown-up I usually try to feel, it was also nice to see my parents again and to see that they were fit and healthy. I knew that they would be helping me out over the next two weeks with shopping and cooking and everything else that I wasn’t allowed to do, and I could just calm down and relax and wait for the two weeks to pass.

My sleep score went from my two worst nights ever to my best night, with the Fitbit telling me I achieved a 91 or an excellent rating. Even though my percentage of time awake was the same as the night before, I slept 2 hours and 39 minutes longer, and my REM and deep sleep were both over 20% and well above my monthly average. It was a pretty amazing turnaround.

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The next night, or my second night of quarantine, was exactly the same, with an equal best sleep score of 91. I spent even less time in bed awake and the same percentage of time in REM and deep sleep (21%), which were both at the upper end of the range recommended for men my age.

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The third night of quarantine was nearly exactly the same, with over 20% REM and deep sleep. The main differences were that I slept later and had a little bit more time awake during the night. It was still considered excellent with an overall sleep score of 90. I’ve never had over 90% three nights in a row, and yet I did it here, despite all the stress and upheaval that I had just been through and during the midst of an escalating COVID-19 pandemic.

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How did I improve my sleep so quickly?

To assess anyone’s sleep, I ask them the following three questions:

  1. Is your sleep pressure high enough when you are going to bed for sleep? YES, especially the first night that I scored a 91. On the other night’s I stayed up progressively later each night, which meant that I was still waiting before I felt sleepy before going to bed.
  2. Are you regularly sleeping at the right time for your body clock? SOMEWHAT. I have usually had a delayed body clock, so sleeping between 12midnight to 8am is probably ideal for me, especially when I am living in Melbourne. The last night of sleep was probably a bit too late, and I could be a bit stricter with not spending time looking at screens in the last two hours before bedtime so that it doesn’t keep getting pushed back further.
  3. Are you doing things to lower your stress levels and make sure that they are low enough when you go to bed at night? YES. As soon as I got back to Melbourne I could breathe a sigh of relief. I wasn’t going to be stuck anymore. I didn’t have to travel. Mum and dad were helping me with accommodation, shopping, meals and entertainment. I also began doing meditation and heart rate variability training and just relaxing and taking it easy, watching shows or movies or talking with friends and family. I went from being panicked to being bored in less than four days, which is a big indicator that my stress levels had dropped a lot.

If you are not doing one or any of these three things, it could explain why you aren’t sleeping so well at the moment. I’d recommend trying any of the following, depending on which of the three things you aren’t currently doing.

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Tips to improve your sleep pressure:

  • Aim to be up for at least 16 hours each day
  • Spend a maximum of 8 hours in bed each night
  • Do not nap during the day
  • Keep naps to under 30 minutes and before 4:00 pm each day
  • Consume as little caffeine as possible
  • Exercise at least 30 minutes every day
  • Participate in physical activity for at least 30 minutes five times per week
  • Engage in a new or cognitively challenging task each day
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Tips to better regulate your internal body clock:

  • Wait until you feel sleepy before you go to bed each night
  • Go to bed as soon as you feel sleepy each night
  • Avoid all bright screens in the last two hours before bed each night
  • Get up at the same time each day, seven days a week
  • Get outside for 20 minutes within the first hour of arising from bed every morning
  • Buy re-timer glasses and wear them for 30 minutes every morning
  • Use f.lux if using the computer during after sunset and night-shift or similar features if using a phone or tablet after sunset
  • Use blue-light blocking glasses if using a phone, tablet computer or watching TV in the last two hours before sleep
  • Install Phillips Hue Smart Lights in your home and use them like you would your regular lights
  • Try to deliberately eat your breakfast, lunch and dinner earlier than you usually do
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Tips to lower your arousal or stress levels:

  • Do less during the day
  • Lower your standards
  • Take more breaks during the day
  • Get out into nature during your lunch break
  • Go for a walk during your lunch break
  • Practice meditation 10 minutes a day using an app such as Balance or Calm or Headspace or Waking Up or Smiling Mind
  • Practice cognitive restructuring skills every time you notice an unrealistic or unhelpful thought – ask what is a more helpful way to think about this situation?
  • Engage in one enjoyable task every day – here are some ideas for during the Covid-19 pandemic
  • Do a random act of kindness every day – here’s 101 ideas for what you could do
  • Live more consistently with your top five values – do a values clarification exercise
  • Live more consistently with your top five signature strengths – take the VIA character strengths survey
  • The two-minute rule: if something takes less than two minutes to do, don’t put it off until later – do it then and there
  • The ten-minute rule: If you do not feel like doing something that would be helpful; start doing it anyway. If after ten minutes of doing the task, you still aren’t up for continuing the job, stop
  • Journal for five minutes about two hours before you go to bed
  • Write down three things that went well that day or that you were grateful for or appreciated
  • Spend more time with friends, family or people that you feel calm around and accepted for who you are (online or over the phone if you can’t see them in person)
  • Do not try to force yourself to sleep and find a good distraction instead
  • Paradoxical intention: try to see how long you can stay awake lying in bed with the lights off and no distractions. Remind yourself that if you are awake, you are succeeding, and say to yourself, just a little longer
  • Autonomic suppression: In bed, mouth the word ‘the’ to yourself every one to two seconds until you fall asleep
  • Listening to stand-up comedy in bed, with a sleep timer on if possible
  • Listening to the podcasts or the radio in bed, with a sleep timer on if possible

Good luck with improving your sleep, and please feel free to ask me any sleep-related questions that you have. If you want to book in for a online video session to discuss your sleep issues in more detail and get more personalised help, please contact me for more details.

Published by Dr Damon Ashworth

I am a Clinical Psychologist. I completed a Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology at Monash University and a Bachelor of Behavioural Sciences and a Bachelor of Psychological Sciences with Honours at La Trobe University. I am passionate about the field of Psychology, and apply the latest empirical findings to best help individuals meet their psychological and emotional needs.

16 thoughts on “How Can We Improve Our Sleep During Uncertain Times?

    1. Thank you. It’s been tough, but I try to keep it in perspective. My loved ones and I are all healthy, and we are trying to get through it the best we can. Allowing others to help me is challenging and something I am trying to get better at. My parents have been a great help since I have returned back to Australia, and I really appreciate that!

    1. The strategy is called autonomic suppression. There was one study on it by Levey back in the early 90s I think. Basically, we have something called the autonomic loop, which is meant to be part of our working memory. The strategy is meant to block this part of our working memory so that we don’t worry about other things as much. Generally, I don’t recommend suppression as a thinking strategy for insomnia. Distraction is much better, as it requires much less effort. Doing things to distract my mind before sleep is helpful, assuming I have had a wind-down period and feel sleepy before I go to bed. Listening to stand up comedy in bed is a strategy I have used in bed for years (using wireless headphones). I enjoy listening to it, don’t feel stressed while listening to it, and fall asleep before I realise it. The stand up special usually turns off after 50-60minutes too, so it doesn’t disrupt my sleep too much during the night.

  1. Doctor I am glad you are with your parents and they are able to help you around. You certainly have had to make very quick and major changes, which has influenced your sleeping patterns. In my case I am aware of what is going on, but there is little I can do when it comes to follow up real medical facts other than my being careful.
    And also I have not had to make any major changes, being able to continue to keep to my usual way of doing things, I am not under unnecessary stress, but having plenty of free time to write on my website. Without knowing all this, I had started to write, about, “The Benefits of Music” and “How to be creative at home making collages or vision boards which are ideal to do and Relax at home, and also some articles on, “Counselling of what I had done for my “Diploma Course”. I have been writing till late or sometimes almost early morning, But have been making up during the day time and I have been eating Healthy and sleeping enough and well.
    I do Hope and Pray, that this situation improves and I keep everyone in My Prayers. Please do “Take Care of yourself and become well again” I send Many Blessings for Good Health, “To you and Your parents and Loved ones” May God Bless You!

  2. I wonder: is there every virtue in sleeplessness? Perhaps some crucial problems of the soul are best handled at midnight? And to these questions can we add: the function of night can perhaps be a time to return to the self- half awake, half asleep, half in a dream state, but alive with a full vision of who one is?

    A provocation, of sorts.

    1. Maybe. People used to not mind the period of wakefulness in the middle of the night, especially before the industrial revolution. They would pray or meditate or connect with their family. Now we think much more negatively about it, and suicidal ideation now increases at night. If people were able to accept their wakefulness and look to benefit from that time awake instead of wishing it was otherwise it would be a positive.

  3. This is an amazing post. It brings awareness to a topic I think a lot of people make jokes about. I know my friends and I are always laughing about how little sleep we get on average but it has gotten worse. It isn’t from the lack of trying to sleep either. You can be in bed with nearly no distractions and still not manage to get decent sleep. It slowly starts to affect your day to day. Already having a mental disorder or being predisposed to developing one in trying times doesn’t help and may make following the steps laid out difficult. But that doesn’t mean it is impossible. Lowering ones stress levels is vital in every situation. Spending time with loved ones and doing things that make oneself feel good are all great pieces of advice.

  4. Thanks for the timely advice on sleep. The biggest obstacles I have on your list are avoiding day naps and limiting my late night use of electronic devices. With the Corona slowdown, both of these obstacles are more difficult to control.

    1. Absolutely. Remember 30-minute naps during the day are okay and even helpful for many people. I would set an alarm for 30-45 minutes later if you feel the need to nap during the day and have f.lux on the computer if you use it late at night, or night-shift on your phone so the screen looks more orange, or try blue light blocking glasses in the last two hours before sleep if you are watching TV.

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