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sleep; sleeplessness; insomnia; stress; relaxation; bed; caffeine; depression; speed; anxiety; pattern; pills; habits; rest; tired; REM; rapid; eye; movement; exercise;


Have you ever worked out how much of your life has been spent sleeping? Ever noticed how some people seem to be able to fall asleep easily, and others can take ages?

When you have trouble getting to sleep and it continues to bother you, it could be that you have a sleep disorder called insomnia, or it could just be that you have developed some bad sleep habits.

Not being able to get to sleep can be really distressing. If you haven't been able to rest properly, your body and mind can start doing strange things.

Why is sleep important?

Having a long healthy uninterrupted sleep is a basic human need, like eating and breathing. Having enough quality sleep is vital to your emotional and physical well being.

Here are some interesting facts you might not know about sleeping:

  • On average, people spend about a third of their life asleep.
  • When you are asleep, you pass through different stages, from light sleep, to heavy sleep, to Rapid Eye Movement (REM) or dreaming sleep, and back again. The sequence is repeated several times a night. Ever been woken up and felt really weird? You were probably in the REM stage.
  • Studies suggest that young people need more sleep than adults because their minds and bodies are developing.
  • Around puberty there can be more sleep problems, particularly for young women, possibly due to hormonal changes or worries they might be having.

Sleep patterns

Different people have different sleep patterns, but most people work best with at least 8 hours sleep a night.

  • Some need to be asleep by 10pm, while others can stay up much later.
  • Some wake at 6 am on the dot, while others struggle to come alive by 9 am.
  • Some people do best if they have naps during the day
  • A few other people can operate on just 4 or 5 hours sleep each day.

Most people do best if they have a regular pattern of sleeping.

  • If you stay up late over the weekend, and sleep in till noon, it's hard to get up Monday morning - your mind starts to get confused about when it should be sleeping and when it needs to be alert and awake.

Do you know that you can't stock up on sleep?

  • If you need to work overnight, but you usually are asleep then, trying to sleep during the day before does not help.
  • You will need to 'catch up' after the missed sleep.

What is insomnia?

Insomnia is when you try to get to sleep, but you can't.

  • You might go to bed as usual, but you find you are lying there thinking of lots of things, and just not getting to sleep.
  • Or you could be waking up really early (say 4 am), and not be able to get back to sleep.
  • When you get up, you still feel tired, and it's hard to face the rest of the day.

For many people, poor sleep is a habit which their body has got into.

  • If you go to bed early some nights and late other nights, your mind cannot develop a regular pattern of sleeping and waking.
  • If you do other things in bed, like study or watch TV, your mind can 'associate' these things with bed. So when you get into bed your mind thinks 'OK, time to study' and you might have trouble sleeping.

Some of the other causes of insomnia are:

  • too much caffeine late in the day (such as strong coffee late at night, or cola and 'energy' drinks).
  • worry about things such as school work, exams, bad things happening at work, stress in your family.
  • not enough exercise (your mind might be tired, but your body is not).
  • some hormonal changes, such as those occurring around the time of a period.
  • some medications, such as some asthma treatments.
  • stimulant drugs, such as amphetamines (speed) or ecstasy.

Most people who are depressed have sleep problems.

  • Many find it really hard to get to sleep, or they might wake up early and lie there worrying about everything that is going wrong.
  • Other people with depression feel very tired and lack energy, and find it really hard to get up for work or school.

Sleep deprivation (not enough sleep)

  • If you are sleep-deprived, you could have a serious accident. You might be driving and not be able to react as quickly as you would have if you had been sleeping properly.
  • The biggest impact not being able to sleep can have on your life is that it reduces your quality of life and leads to daytime tiredness, which makes you feel run down.
  • You might find that you feel overly emotional and react poorly to stressful situations. When you are sleep-deprived, your friends might notice that you seem down and get jumpy over insignificant things.
  • Being tired all the time will lead to you not enjoying your life, so it's important to get help if you are worrying about sleep or your sleep patterns.

Sleeping tips

To get a healthy night's sleep, there are some things you can try.


  • Get into a pattern of going to bed around the same time and getting up at about the same time each morning, even on weekends! Check out Goals for some ideas.
  • Try to exercise during the day so you feel physically tired at night. Late evening exercise can keep you awake, so make the exercise in the afternoon or early evening. Check out Exercise for some ideas.
  • If you are lying there and not going to sleep, try a relaxation exercise. See our topic Stress and relaxation.
  • Have a hot bath.
  • If you can't sleep, get up and do something for a while and try again, but don't have a cup of tea or coffee. Herbal tea might be better, but check, as some herbal teas can keep you awake too.
  • Write your thoughts down. You could write about things that are worrying you; this helps to 'get them out'. You might like to write a list of things you need to do that you keep thinking about.
  • Have a hot milk drink. Hot milk has natural sedative compounds in it.
  • Try visualisations including something peaceful or boring. Find something you like and imagine making your dream object. For example, if you are into bikes, imagine building a dream bike. Start with the wheels, but spend as long as you can on the small details, then move onto the spokes, etc.
  • Quit smoking - nicotine can contribute to sleep loss.


  • Read or work in bed during the day.
  • Play computer games in bed.
  • Watch TV or DVDs in bed.
  • Take phone calls or texts from friends at night, it can lead to sleeplessness. If they insist on calling or texting, just turn your phone off.
  • Sleep during the day. If you are very tired, make it a short nap (about 45 minutes), not a long sleep.
  • Exercise strenuously in the evening.
  • Eat heavily or drink caffeinated beverages in the late afternoon or at night.

What about sleeping pills?

Many people use sleeping pills to help them sleep.

  • They can be useful if only used for a day or so, but if you use them for more than a few days, the next few nights when you try to sleep without them can be very difficult.
  • Your sleep might be more disturbed than before you used them if you have become dependent on them.
  • Ask your doctor how best to use sleeping tablets safely.

Some people find herbal sleeping tablets useful, but again check carefully to make sure that they are safe, and use them only for a few days to break a pattern of sleeping badly.

If the reason you are not sleeping well is because you are depressed, then doing something about the depression is likely to improve your sleep a lot. Talk to your doctor or a health professional about how you feel.

If you decide to use sleeping tablets, you need to work on your sleep habits at the same time so that you go on sleeping well once you stop taking the tablets. Try the ideas listed above.

Insomnia and stress

One major cause of sleeplessness is stress and living with high levels of anxiety or worry in your life. Stress can be very disruptive to your sleep, as you can spend hours lying in bed thinking about what is stressing you out, which tenses your body up and stops you from getting to sleep. Recognising that you are stressed and learning ways of dealing with it might help you.

Writing is one way to combat this, especially if you find you are having repetitive thoughts:

  • Write down the jobs you need to do the next day. When you have a list next to the bed you might find you don't need to keep thinking about them. Or you can work out a number of things you need to do and just remember the number.
  • If you are having negative repetitive thoughts, keeping a diary can help you order your thoughts and 'get them out of your head'.

We have other examples of ways to relax in our topic Stress and relaxation.


South Australia

  • The Youth Health Service
    - Central: 57 Hyde St, Adelaide
    - South: 50a Beach Rd, Christies Beach
    - North: 6 Gillingham Rd, Elizabeth
    - West: 51 Bower St, Woodville
  • Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800
  • School, TAFE or university counsellor
  • Local community health service
  • Your family doctor.



  • MoodGYM is a way for you to find out about depression and anxiety, and work through some of the symptoms.
  • 'Living life to the full' is a free online course where you can learn about things like anxiety and unhelpful thinking. You do this by listening to audio and doing some writing.


American Psychiatric Association. 'Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - IV', American Psychiatric Association Publication (1995).

Fredriksen K, Rhodes J, Reddy R and Way N. 'Sleepless in Chicago: Tracking the Effects of Adolescent Sleep Loss During the Middle School Years.' Child Development, January 2004; 75 (1): 84-95.

Johnson E, Roth T, Schultz L and Breslau N. 'Epidemiology of DSM-IV Insomnia in Adolescence: Lifetime Prevalence, Chronicity, and an Emergent Gender Difference'. Pediatrics, February 2006; 117(2): 247-e256.

Mant A, deBurgh S, Yeo G, Letton T and Shaw T. (1997). 'Anxiety and Insomnia, think twice before prescribing'. Royal College of General Practitioners.

Van den Bulck, J. Adolescent use of mobile phones for calling and for sending text messages after lights out: results from a prospective cohort study with a one-year follow-up. SLEEP, 2007; 30(9): 1220-1223.

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Youth Healthline on 1300 13 17 19 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).
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