Sleep issues: 5 young people share their stories

We all know how important sleep is for us, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to get the shut-eye we need.

In fact, recent research from ReachOut shows that many young people are struggling to get enough good-quality sleep, with factors like study stress, mental health issues, loneliness, housing problems and the rising cost of living all playing their part.

So, if you’re having sleep issues, you’re certainly not alone. Hear from Azhaan, Emma, Isabelle, Joe and Gabby as they share their experiences of sleep issues and ways they manage them, and offer some handy tips for others.

"Find a reason to fall asleep in the first place." - Azhaan, 21

Side profile image of Azhaan, who is smiling as he builds a lego pirate ship.

I’ve always had a love–hate relationship with sleep. I love sleeping. Who doesn’t? But sometimes, just knowing I have to wake up before 9 am will keep me up.

Lately, I’ve been feeling so burnt out from juggling job schedules and uni assignments, and from financial stress. When the bedtime anxiety kicks in, all I can think about is how falling asleep means waking up tomorrow to face it all over again – rushing for the bus, racing to meet deadlines, stressing about this and that.

It often feels like staying up tonight is easier than dealing with tomorrow.

I’m VERY guilty of using TikTok or Instagram to distract myself from these stressors, and my brain seems convinced that they’re the solution. (Hint: they’re not). But there are a few things that have helped.

An app I’ve loved using recently is SleepCycle. It’s designed to wake you up during the lighter stages of sleep (N1 and N2), so, not only do I wake up feeling fresher, I also fall asleep more easily knowing I’ll be woken up gently, rather than with a jolt. (iPhone alarm PTSD is real).

When I find myself mindlessly scrolling, chucking on a YouTube video essay on the history of capitalism or on hidden calculus lore’ is just about as interesting and non-stimulating enough to send me off. (I feel like a dad falling asleep on the couch while watching TV).

My best advice for getting started? Find a reason to fall asleep in the first place. It can be anything at all, even just ‘to be more present, so I can make funnier jokes’.

But if you’re still struggling to get your sleep on track, check out ReachOut’s Online Community! It’s the perfect place to find suggestions and to chat with people who are going through the same thing.

"I started seeing a psychologist, and this helped me to realise how much my mental health impacts my sleep." - Isabelle, 19

Image of Isabelle standing on a top of a mountain and smiling at the camera.

I started having trouble sleeping when I was 17. I struggled for hours to get to sleep, only to struggle just as much to get out of bed in the morning. Everyone, including GP’s, said this was ‘normal’ and that I was ‘just growing’. Except it didn’t feel that way.

At sleepovers, I realised just how abnormal my sleeping was. Most of my friends would fall asleep pretty easily, but I’d lay awake feeling exhausted.

I didn’t notice how bad it was getting until it started to have a detrimental impact on my life. I’d cancel plans with friends or call in sick to work because I was too exhausted to get out of bed, even if I’d slept 13–14 hours. Then I started seeing a psychologist, and this helped me to realise how much my mental health impacts my sleep. I’m an anxious person, which sometimes means that even when I'm exhausted, my mind still races.

To get to sleep, I’ve acknowledged that sometimes I need to help get my mind ready for sleep! I used to do everything in my room – from relaxing, to studying, to talking to my friends. But I learnt that I needed my brain to associate my room with sleep – with being a place mostly for sleeping.

I also learnt that light and darkness play a large physiological role in how long it takes to get to sleep, so now I try to reduce the light around me as much as I can a couple of hours before I go to bed.

I’ll tell you what I wish someone had told me: when it feels easier just to stop trying to fall asleep, take a minute to be patient with yourself and think about why you started in the first place. For me, it was so that I’d have more energy and mental clarity and could enjoy more being in the present during adventures and making memories!

"Something that helped was building compassion towards myself." - Emma, 24

Sleep issues have always been deeply tied to my depression and anxiety. For years, my sleep has bounced between extremes – from taking long naps to avoid facing my sadness, to pulling all-nighters so I could hand in assignments on time.

The most disheartening effect was the extreme exhaustion that kept me from doing the things I took joy in and used to be proud of. Without those, life stretched on without meaning.

Something that helped was building compassion towards myself. It meant being okay with the fact that sleep is difficult for me and with expecting to see setbacks along the way. This removed the shame I was feeling, empowering me to keep trying on bad days.

Practically, it looked like daily acceptance meditation. I also journalled about what my sleep habits were giving me, and how I could replace them with better habits to achieve the same things.

For example, instead of sleeping to escape negative feelings, I slowly started building multiple different parts of my life that gave me joy: I scheduled enjoyable activities every day, acknowledged every small win, built closer relationships and started working towards meaningful goals. And with my therapist, I learnt other ways to regulate negative emotions.

Like a garden, I knew the seeds I was sowing today would need time to bloom. And just like a garden, it would need continual maintenance and care. But in my experience, my effort and patience have been paid back tenfold. If you’re struggling with sleep, know that things don’t have to be like this. You deserve to live a full life.

"I'd advise putting into practice treatments and methods that work for you."- Joe, 21

Image of Joe smiling and looking at the camera.

Sleep has been a problem for me since adolescence, despite how important it is.

Starting in high school, I’d typically go to bed at three or four in the morning and get up at six, regularly surviving on only three hours of sleep.

I don’t have much recall of that time in my life. But I do remember being concerned when a teacher told me in my senior year that, in my earlier years, they were extremely worried about my wellbeing – purely based on my visibly low mood.

As a student, I was mostly preoccupied with school and study.

During that time, I felt a bit powerless. In fact, the only time I felt like I had complete control was at night. So, I’d stay up until 3 am to maintain this control. As I reflect, I'm not sure how I managed, because I can hardly function on just six hours of sleep now!

While I still stay up late every now and then, my sleep quality has improved somewhat since high school. To recover control of sleep, I recommend scheduling commitments in the morning. For instance, I’d work during the morning or organise a breakfast date. This would motivate me not only to get out of bed, but also to go to bed earlier.

For other young people who may be going through high school on just three hours of sleep a night, I’d advise putting into practice treatments or methods that work for you, whether it’s restricting screen time, practising meditation, reading or anything else.

"Even that one inch of progress is something you can take pride in." - Gabby, 21

I come from a home of nine: me, my mother, and our five cats and two dogs. Mum’s a single parent, and I was a student, so I could only do so much to help pay the vet bills and buy pet food.

As I grew aware of the world, other aspects began to weigh in: studies, grades, money, then COVID-19 and the wake of a crippled economy – things our household could barely manage.

At night, I'd ponder the deadlines and stakes, so much so that it would spiral out of control. With a rising market and food costs, I’m pretty certain many people my age felt the same.

Things piled up on top of my current responsibilities, ones that I found myself paralysed in facing. I would procrastinate until, when night came, I’d struggle to sleep because I'd failed to complete anything.

It boiled down to one point: my inability to fix it all. It's all rather grim, the more you think about it, but there is one way I found to fight off bedtime anxiety. I began to set small milestones. Doing one thing, tiny as it might be, was progress.

I was able to move past a sense of urgency and regain the control I'd felt I’d lost. One by one, making small but significant efforts is what gave me the time to calm down and feel ready to tackle the next day, proud that I hadn't once again lost out to task paralysis.

It's way too easy to feel the pressures of a recovering world weighing on you. But, as life goes on, even that one inch of progress is something you can take pride in.

What can I do now?

  • For tips on improving your sleep hygiene, check out our article on how to get a good night’s sleep.

  • Head to ReachOut’s Online Community to find support and chat with other young people.

  • Get registered psychologist Rashida Dungarwalla’s take on sleep issues and how to manage them.