Signs and symptoms
Many of us will experience trouble sleeping at points during our life; this may be due to stress, travel, illness, or other disruptions. If these sleep difficulties are a more regular occurrence and are impacting our health and daily functioning, we may be experiencing a sleep disorder.
Signs that you could be experiencing a sleep disorder include:
- Frequently feeling sleepy during the day
- Having difficulty staying awake during activities such as watching TV, reading, or driving
- Feeling an urge to nap most days
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Feeling our emotions are on a ‘shorter fuse’, where we’re more quickly irritable or tearful
- Feeling dependent on caffeine to function
- Experiencing physical aches and pains
What types of sleeping difficulties are there?
Some common sleep difficulties include:
- Insomnia – Difficulties in getting to sleep or staying asleep, or waking up early in the morning. This is the most common sleep disorder in adults.
- Narcolepsy – Extreme tiredness with intermittent sleepiness during the day, which can include involuntary napping.
- Periodic limb movement disorder – Muscle spasms of the legs that often wake up the sleeper. This is more common in older adults.
- Restless legs – This feels like cramps or some kind of irritation in the lower legs, which urges the person to move their legs or get up and walk around.
- Snoring – Breathing through the mouth while asleep.
- Sleep apnoea – The upper airway is blocked, causing airflow and breathing to stop for a time during sleep.
There are many things that you can try that will help improve your sleep. These include:
- Go to bed when you are sleepy and get up at the same time every morning. Do not sleep late in the mornings trying to make up for ‘lost sleep’ and, if you think you have insomnia, do not take naps during the day.
- Set aside time for problem solving during the day, not last thing at night. Identify any problems that are causing you to be anxious and try to resolve these problems by making decisions.
- Do not lie in bed worrying for long periods of time. If you cannot sleep, get out of bed and do something that is distracting yet relaxing, such as knitting or listening to music. (It will be important to plan appropriate activities in advance). Return to bed only when you feel sleepy again.
- Do not use alcohol to help you sleep.
- If you experience insomnia, avoid drinking caffeinated drinks after about 4 p.m. and do not drink more than two cups of caffeinated drinks each day.
- Do not smoke for at least an hour or longer before going to bed.
- Avoid long-term use of sleeping pills as these can foster dependency.
- If you sleep in a noisy place, try to reduce noise levels by closing windows and doors and wearing ear-plugs.
- Ensure the room is dark and that the morning light does not filter in. If you have a tendency to oversleep however, it may be helpful to let the morning light enter the bedroom.
- Getting to sleep is much easier when you are physically comfortable than when you are hungry, cold, in some kind of physical pain, or when you need to go to the toilet. Make sure all your immediate needs have been met before you go to bed.
- Regular exercise during the day can improve sleeping patterns. Try to avoid exercise late in the evening as this may make it more difficult for you to get to sleep.
- By doing the same thing every night before you go to bed you can improve your chances of falling asleep quickly. It is a good idea to develop a short routine involving things like washing your face and cleaning your teeth which you can easily perform before going to bed at night. A hot bath for 20 minutes may also be helpful.
- Be aware of things in the environment that may interfere with your sleep. For example, pets can disturb your sleep if they become active during the night or if they prevent you from moving freely in the bed. Also, digital clocks can be distracting if they glow or flash. It may be helpful to face the clock in the opposite direction.
You may also find the following links helpful in learning more about anxiety and accessing further resources:
- Centre for Clinical Interventions – a range of informational resources available including self-help series for sleep
- Moodjuice – education and techniques for sleep difficulties
Getting professional help
If you or someone you care about is in need of additional assistance, the best person to speak to is your GP. They may refer you to a mental health professional, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist.
In case of emergency, the following services are available: