Sleep and Stress: Unlikely Bedfellows

by | Jul 24, 2018 | Anxiety, Stress

Jacqui Kemmis-Riggs, Psychologist, Baulkham Hills NSW
24 July 2018

Sleep. Sometimes I just can’t get enough sleep and other times I think I don’t need so much! One thing I know, however, is that when we are stressed, feeling low, worried, anxious or in pain, sleeping can become a problem.

Sleep is such an important part of our lives, yet the irony is that it’s often only when we start to have problems with our sleep that we start to think about it some more. And that’s the tricky part. Because how we think about our sleep can play a really important role in maintaining sleep problems.

The diagram below shows how negative thoughts and worrying about sleep can make it worse and perpetuate an unhelpful cycle of poor sleep. It is as though these negative thoughts become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and they can get in the way of returning to regular, good sleep habits. These negative thoughts can occur during the day and the night.

the role of thinking in sleep

Initial poor sleep due to pain, stress, worry or other concerns:


How much sleep do we need?

It varies from person to person. The average in Australia for adults is around 7 to 8.5 hours per night, whereas some people can manage with 5 hours and others need 10 hours! The amount of sleep we need typically reduces as we get older.

Two key processes in sleep

Did you know that there are two really important processes involved in sleep?

  1. Circadian processes, which is like our biological clock that is responsible for variations in melatonin, temperature and alertness throughout the day.
  2. Homeostatic process, which acts like sleep pressure. So the more time awake equals more sleep pressure, and the more pressure, the more likely we will go to sleep.

So this means that sleep is more likely when sleep pressure is high (you haven’t slept it a while) and alertness is low. Recommendations for healthy sleep habits are based on working with these processes.

healthy sleep habits

Poor sleep quality can influence our mood, concentration, reaction times and judgement, and general coordination. If you are finding that you are having some problems with sleep, here’s 6 sleep habits that can help.

  1. Regular routines. Go to bed and get up at roughly the same time each day – even on weekends! This might not sound appealing if you feel like you need to ‘catch up’ on sleep from the night/s before, but research shows that a regular rhythm will help you feel better.
  2. No naps. Don’t nap in the daytime to catch up on sleep. It’s best to go to bed when sleepy and if you nap in the day, you can disrupt this process and not feel tired when you are due to go to bed.
  3. Exercise. Regular exercise is recommended, but don’t do an intensive exercise class in the few hours before bedtime – it is likely to wake you up! Exercise on waking can be a good way help your body wake up and feel refreshed.
  4. Avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol. It is best to avoid consuming any caffeine (in coffee, tea, cola drinks, chocolate, and some medications) or nicotine (cigarettes) or alcohol for at least 4-6 hours before going to bed. Caffeine and nicotine act as stimulants and interfere with the ability to fall asleep. Many people believe that alcohol is relaxing and helps them to get to sleep at first, but it actually interrupts the quality of sleep.
  5. Wind down routine. A regular wind-down routine of about 30 minutes before bedtime can promote relaxation and increases positive associations with the bed/bedtime. Some ideas are: reading, calm-breathing exercises, stretching or yoga, listening to soft music or sitting calmly with a cup of caffeine-free tea.

what next?

If you’ve tried all of the above and are still finding you are having sleep difficulties, it might be helpful to talk to your GP or make an appointment with a psychologist who will help to tailor some specific strategies that work for you and your lifestyle.



Psychologist, Baulkham Hills NSW
Jacqui has worked with a diverse range of people from different backgrounds, experiencing or impacted by various mental health problems. She has experience in outpatient hospital, community and clinical research settings. She is passionate about early intervention and improving the quality of family relationships to create positive change in behaviour, mood and overall wellbeing.