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How to sleep when your world is falling apart

Women's Health Week

Stress and sleep make terrible bed partners. But what should you do when the two mix?

Here, experts explain why it’s important not to push sleep aside and keep going during times of stress. And, given shut-eye can help you cope under pressure, we look at ways to promote it.

Before her cancer diagnosis, Dora Kesarios Peppas’ sleep was excellent.

The 41-year-old could easily clock at least seven hours of uninterrupted shut-eye each night, save for the times her daughters woke her in the early stages of motherhood.

“I was the envy of my family,” she recalls.

That all changed in 2021 when a breast cancer diagnosis, and the stress that followed, shattered her healthy sleep habits.

“Instead of sleeping, I would cry, worry and stress of what [was] ahead of me and worry about how it would all affect my girls.”

Seven-plus hours of peaceful slumber turned into “five-ish max a night”, she says.

The stress-sleep nightmare

Research tells us that many women are stressed. Plenty aren’t sleeping well either.

According to national data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 19% of women experienced “high or very high levels of psychological distress” compared to 12% of men in 2020-21. Meanwhile, results of our recent sleep survey showed that 41% of women rated the quality of their sleep as “quite” or “very” poor.

Sleep can improve your ability to cope so go easy on yourself.

As many know, whether it’s the pressures of work, illness, catastrophic events, relationships, or day-to-day responsibilities like picking the kids up after work, stress doesn’t necessarily quieten at night.

For Dora, it increased when she wasn’t busy – in other words, bedtime.

Psychologist and CEO of the Sleep Health Foundation Dr Moira Junge says that it is perfectly understandable for women’s sleep to suffer during times of intense pressure.

When higher levels of stress hormones are circulating, we can become too wired and alert for proper sleep and our focus naturally shifts to the crisis, she says.

However, according to Alisha Guyett, PhD candidate in Flinders University’s sleep health division, the problem is that stress and poor sleep risk forming a dangerous relationship.

“Stress can negatively affect sleep quality and duration, while not enough sleep can increase stress levels.”

If the stress continues to disrupt shut-eye, “sleep disorders can emerge”, along with “lasting physical and mental health problems”, she adds.

Fortunately, Dr Junge says that temporary sleep loss, in most cases, isn’t problematic – but it needs to be managed to prevent long-term sleep problems.

Sleep health tips when stress is high

  1. Catnap – Sleep can improve your ability to cope so go easy on yourself. If your night-time sleep is disrupted, try to fit in a brief nap in the early afternoon. If this worsens your night sleep, consider reducing the duration of your nap.
  2. Take turns – Share the load with family and friends where possible. Remember, you can’t do it all.
  3. Exercise – Physical activity might be the last thing on your mind during a crisis but it has real benefits for reducing stress and promoting sleep.
  4. Use tech to your advantage – Try calming apps like Smiling Mind to help you relax.
  5. Get your sleep routine right – If you’re tossing and turning, bring relaxation activities, such as mindfulness, into your routine. Even if you don’t fall asleep, you’ll be giving yourself a much-needed break.
  6. Beware of bad habits – Sometimes sleep issues can persist after the stress has passed because of newly formed habits. Be aware of this and try to take action early.
  7. Get help – Speak to a mental health professional, friend and/or family member during times of stress.

For Dora, sleep didn’t improve until her treatment for breast cancer stopped – eight months after her diagnosis. Within that time, daily naps and family support kept her afloat.

“Once I knew I was okay...I found it easier to go to bed with a clear mind.”

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Last updated: 
17 January 2024
Last reviewed: 
13 July 2024