Waking up to the problem of insomnia: can technology help?

  • Legs with boots in corn field
  • Man wearing virtual reality goggles
Lisa Lampe and Rita Hitching
By
University of Newcastle, School of Medicine and Public Health
Assoc Prof Lisa Lampe, Deputy Head of School
Rita Hitching, PhD Candidate/Associate Lecturer
Issue
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My father is a farmer, as was my grandfather and his father before him. From growing up on a farm, I know the sacrifices that every farmer makes. My father would be up before sunrise – tired, but fearful of being perceived as lazy or soft. His calloused hands would grab his hat and head out in all kinds of weather. Even today, at 86 years young, he won’t sit at the kitchen table for dinner until he’s made sure his chickens have been fed and secured.

To put it simply, farmers worry. Be it about the weather or machinery breaking down. Currently, their biggest concerns are rising costs and interest rates, according to a recent report released by Roy Morgan. It’s not just Australian farmers who are concerned; the October 2022 interest rate rise to 7.3 per cent from the 6.1 per cent rate in July has made international headlines.

Financial pressures are a significant source of stress, and younger farmers who live and work on the land are especially vulnerable.

Stress and insomnia

A common consequence of stress is insomnia, that is difficulty falling or staying asleep, or not being able to get back to sleep. Exactly how or why stress keeps some people awake at night is not clear. But sleep is critical to our physical health and mental wellbeing.

Lack of sleep disrupts the body’s principal restorative tool. Insomnia increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity, dementia, stroke and chronic pain. Insomnia impairs judgment and our ability to regulate the emotions that contribute to risky behaviours, including excessive alcohol and substance use. Memory, attention and concentration are all affected by insomnia and this increases the risk of injuries and accidents. Farmers are three times more likely to die from injuries and accidents related to tiredness than other men.

Insomnia impacts our ability to cope with stress. It may become chronic, particularly if the pressures of running a farming business persist and are accompanied by social isolation or a farmer’s reluctance to ask for help. Stress and insomnia are independent risk factors for the onset of depression, anxiety, substance use and suicide. In addition, stress and insomnia may delay recovery from, or trigger a relapse of, a prior mental health issue. More frequently, stress and insomnia will join forces and become a dynamic duo that creates a vicious cycle that can be very difficult to break.

Help by stealth

There are very effective treatment options for insomnia and associated common mental health issues. Media campaigns encourage farmers to go and see their doctor. However, as Jammie Daniels, a farmer from Kamarooka in Victoria, says ‘I know everyone in the waiting room … I’d rather nobody knows I needed help.’

Technology may seem like a strange bedfellow for insomnia, but scientists are finding new ways to use it to help increase access to health care in rural and remote areas. The latest innovation in digital therapies is using virtual reality (VR) to bring the real good doctor to you. VR has been used for the treatment of mental health conditions since the 1990s, but the cost and cumbersome equipment made it impractical to use outside of the research lab. Modern VR uses a wireless head-mounted display (HMD) – a bit like a set of ski goggles – to project a computer-generated visual and acoustic 3D immersive world you can interact with. The experience feels like you’re there or that you’ve been transported to a new place and been shown how to improve your mood and relaxation.

If you haven’t heard of VR or used a HMD to play a game yet, you may soon get a chance. Research will soon be underway at the University of Newcastle using VR to deliver mind–body therapies, like mindfulness, to facilitate relaxation and sleep. It might soon be time to buy a VR headset.

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