10 ways you’re sabotaging your sleep

Woman asleep in bed with her phone still in her hand

Tianna Nadalin

Posted June 08, 2021

Don’t let insomnia crash your slumber party. Here are 10 reasons why you can't sleep.

We’re stuck at home, again, which means the temptation to stay up for just one more episode of that Netflix series you’ve been bingeing in lockdown is real. Sure, you might be falling asleep on the couch but who cares when you’ve got nowhere to be in the morning, right?

Wrong. Clinical psychologist and leading mindfulness expert Dr Richard Chambers says many people are accidentally sabotaging their sleep, leading to a range of mental health issues, including burnout, anxiety and depression. “Use sleep as a barometer,” he says. “When sleep is good, life tends to be good.”

These are the basics of sleep hygiene, plus his guide to 10 of the most common ways you might be sabotaging your sleep.

10 ways you’re sabotaging your sleep

You’re burnt out

If you’re having trouble sleeping, burnout could be to blame. “We’re increasingly working in ways that are super driven and hyper-stimulated,” Richard says. “Particularly during lockdowns.” A lot of people are working harder because they’re at home so it’s easy to answer emails at 11pm at night, eat lunch in front of the screen and take very few breaks. And that’s before juggling working from home and homeschooling. “When you’re so ‘on’ all the time, that’s when you put yourself at risk of burnout,” Richards says. “And trouble switching off at night is one of the early warning signs.”

You wear busyness like a badge of honour

Another key sleep saboteur is trying to pack too many things into your day. “There is a big difference between busyness and productivity,” Richard says. “How many things are you squeezing into your calendar? We need to get uncaught from this cult of busyness and give ourselves permission to stop and unwind.”

Woman throwing pillow on top of her face in frustration

Photo: Getty


You’re relying on stimulants

Enjoying more than a few cups of coffee is practically compulsory if you live in Victoria, but it could be keeping you up at night. Caffeine is a stimulant that blocks sleep-promoting chemicals known as adenosine receptors in the brain. Normally, a build-up of adenosine during the day helps us become sleepy at night but caffeine interrupts this process, which means we’re more alert and attentive. Studies have also shown that, when consumed close to bedtime, caffeine can also delay the onset of sleep by interfering with our natural circadian rhythm.

You’re having a few too many coronavinos

Think a cheeky nightcap will help put you to sleep? It might help you fall asleep quicker but studies have shown it reduces rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is the stage of sleep in which we dream – and is thought to be the most restorative. The more you drink before bed, the more pronounced the disruption.

You’re ignoring your body’s sleep signals

Nodding off in front of the TV? “Sleep comes in waves every 75 to 90 minutes,” Richard explains. “So if you’re lying on the couch and that wave of sleep comes – catch it. Once you wake up and think ‘I should’ve gone to bed’ it’s too late. If you miss that wave its’ 90 minutes to the next one.”

You’re staying up too late

There’s a reason 12pm is called midnight. “We used to go to sleep an hour after dark and wake up at dawn,” Richard says. But, since the advent of modern creature comforts (like electricity and lightbulbs), we’ve been able to operate outside of our body's natural circadian rhythm. “The more our sleep is aligned with that, the better quality it is,” he says. “And the more in sync we are with the natural rhythms of nature, generally, the healthier we are overall.”

Woman in bed with insomnia

Photo: Getty


You don’t have a consistent bedtime

While there’s no perfect time to arrive at the slumber party, Richard says consistency is key. “It’s not OK to go to bed at 2am one night and, the next day, go to bed at 10pm and get up at six,” he says. “Whether you go to bed at 10pm or 11pm isn’t as important as sticking to that time regularly.”

You’re using your bed wrong

“Your bed should be for two things,” Richard says. “Sleep and sex.” But these days, a lot of people are working in bed, watching TV, having serious conversations and using their boudoir for a whole gamut of activities that are anything but relaxing or restorative. “Want to know the first rule of sleep hygiene,” Richard says? “Just don’t do it.”

Being too hot, cold or uncomfortable in bed could also be to blame for poor sleep, and old or unsupportive mattresses are often one of the biggest culprits. We spend nearly 3000 hours a year in bed so you want to make sure you're making the most of your horizontal time. If you're waking up with aches and pains, can feel springs digging into your back or you've had your mattress for more than a decade, it's probably time to consider a younger model. Squeaky springs or sagging in the middle are also signs your mattress needs replacing. And if you're waking up because you're too cold, consider switching to flannelette sheets in winter.

Woman's legs in bed

Photo: Getty


You’re overthinking insomnia

There’s nothing worse than waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to get back to sleep. But Richard says worrying about it is the worst thing you can do. “When people are having trouble sleeping, they lie in bed feeling stressed and anxious,” he says. “This just releases adrenaline and cortisol into the body all night which is why you feel like crap in the morning.”

Instead, he says, try practising mindfulness or meditation. “Most of the time you’ll end up relaxing and drift back to sleep,” he says. “If not, at least you’ve given your mind some time to clear its short-term memory cache so you can get up in the morning and feel OK.”

You’re not prioritising sleep

Think getting ready for bed is as simple as having a shower and brushing your teeth? Think again. “Your sleep routine doesn’t begin at 10pm,” Richard says. “It begins the moment you wake up in the morning. That means doing whatever you need to do during the day – like taking regular breaks, exercising and eating well – to set yourself up for sleep success.”