I don’t want to be awake right now writing this, nor do I need to be.
But I’ve been struggling to get back to sleep for the last two hours and have passed the point of no return. I’ll merely lie awake another two or so hours before the kids wake up, frustrated and annoyed with myself. I may as well at least use the time writing.
This is insomnia. It comes in different forms at different times.
Sometimes sleep onset at the beginning of the night is the issue, lying awake for hours, heart pumping, toes tapping, thoughts circling in every direction. Too many browser tabs still open in your head, including a couple streaming various Spotify playlists — all competing for the mind’s attention at the same time that the mind is supposed to be shutting down.
Occasionally, it’s a night of no sleep at all.
Other times, it’s what I’m experiencing right now: A few hours of sleep in the bank. Body thinking we’re done with that, next! Mind feeling fine now but knowing a day of exhaustion awaits. I toy with the idea of being able to catch up with a daytime nap while working from home, but I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually fallen asleep during daylight hours and tomorrow (today?) is a work day anyway.
And I am so very, very far from alone as a woman in her thirties experiencing this.
Earlier this month we surveyed more than 1100 women on their physical and mental health and found that 64 per cent don’t believe they’re getting enough sleep.
A massive quarter or respondents said they’re waking up and finding it “difficult to get back to sleep” every night.
And almost a third (31 per cent) said it takes them more than 30 minutes to fall asleep.
Of course in this study we found that many women have no choice but to sacrifice sleep, with a third saying caring responsibilities have seen them sacrifice sleep in the past week alone.
But for a significant chunk of women – whether they’re exhausted or not – they simply can’t get to sleep when the have the opportunity to do so.
The Pandemic and its associated stress appear to be having an impact. We found 39 per cent of women in Victoria say that it takes them more than 30 minutes to get to sleep at night, compared with 29 per cent of women elsewhere.
Reading the comments from women on their relationship with sleep is telling. The anxiety is real: COVID, economic worries, safety concerns, and just generally worrying about everything that’s going on. There’s also the feedback loop of angst on not being able to get sleep.
And then there’s also the loneliness.
One comment particularly stands out, describing herself as “tumble weed”.
“I have a few reasons for not sleeping well but the main one is I don’t know which way is up or down,” she says. “Sometimes I will work at night and sleep in the day because I have very little contact with the world.
“No routine makes me just roll along like a tumble weed. Which is what I am at night. A tumble weed.”
I live with four others including three kids, but at 3:30am when they are (mercifully) all asleep I feel the loneliness of pottering pointlessly about the house. Not awake enough to do much of use, but certainly not asleep enough to capture the rest needed.
I turn to female friends on this issue, and their experiences vary dramatically.
Some, despite having young kids, sleep blissfully. Many can’t even comprehend lying awake for more than a few minutes after their head hits the pillow.
But plenty of others struggle, like my business partner Tarla Lambert, who developed insomnia in her late twenties, and understands what it means to actually have a ‘bad night’. We regularly share the hours we’ve achieved, the strategies we’re testing. I quietly kept my sleeping issues to myself for years, embarrassed to ever let others know just how big my sleep debt actually is. I can say now that it helps to share – you quickly realise you’re far from being alone lying awake at 3am.
Varying forms of health advice suggest adults should get seven to nine hours of sleep a night. There’s even been some frustrating research done to suggest women need more sleep than men.
And then you get the sleep advocates. The Arianna Huffington’s of the world advocating for everyone to get more sleep, urging a pushback against a lack of sleep as a symbol of power, suggesting “the most basic shift we can make in redefining success in our lives has to do with our strained relationship with sleep”. Her TED talk title? How to succeed: Get more sleep. It’s the path to more productivity, better decision-making, more happiness, more grand slam making. Of course it is.
Huffington says women should, literally, “sleep their way to the top”.
When you can’t sleep – being told that your lack of sleep is possibly the barrier standing between you and success, absolutely does not help.
What can help?
One thing that has helped is reframing my anxiety around sleep and its association with success. I try to get it over a few days, rather than counting the hours I have in one night and assessing myself accordingly.
I’ve moved on from believing that literally sleeping my way to the top is the only possibility of getting to the top.
Speaking to a number of medical experts as we’ve been investigating the why women might struggle with sleep and what we can do about it, there are a few simple things that stand out and should be shared before we our more comprehensive story on the issue.
Of course there are the basics: watch your caffeine intake, exercise regularly but not too close to your bedtime, try and establish set bedtimes and routines, limit social media in the hours before bed and keep your screens out of your bedroom. If you’ve struggled with sleep for a long time, you’re probably well across all of these.
But there are a few other simple measures, especially when it comes to managing the thoughts that circle and keep you wide awake. Keep the notebook handy, write it down. Get up and out of bed and reset yourself to start the sleep onset process again.
Go easy on yourself, accept that a little lost sleep may not be as diabolical as you think. And please, talk to your local GP. If you don’t have a good one, now is an excellent time to find one. They might be able to determine an underlying issue that can be treated, or refer you to somebody who can help.
We’ll be sharing a lot more on sleep in the coming weeks, including conversations we’ve been having with experts. If you’ve got a sleep issue or something to share, get in contact. And subscribe to the Women’ Health News for all the latest.
We’re also running an online event next Monday at 12pm AEST to share the results of our first Women’s Health survey, including our findings and latest tips on sleep. You can register here
If you or someone you know needs assistance, contact Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, Lifeline on 13 11 14, or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.