A woman sits in my office with tears falling down her cheeks and a look of haunted desperation. She just had her umpteenth fight with her husband, barely gets through whatever she can of the endless daily demands, and interactions with the kids feel like obligations instead of something she can look forward to. While it’s tempting to think this is a blend of anxiety and depression, my conclusion was different, “I want you to go home and take as long a nap as you can. Then, when you have given yourself time to have three consecutive nights of at least eight hours of rest, let’s meet again.” Although surprised by my response, she faithfully followed my recommendation. The next time we met, she was a different person. “I can’t believe everything seemed so bleak. Sleep helped me take a break long enough to see where balance was badly needed and to stop putting myself last all the time.”
With the start of the New Year, it seemed like the perfect time to begin looking at the ways we could promote a general sense of well-being and stop habits that cause emotional messes. The best place to start is with some good old fashioned prevention. Several key activities can help us avoid feeling like are emotions are like raw nerves, but the one that is most undervalued but has profound impact is adequate sleep.
You may not know this, but you have several phases of sleep, one part helps repair the body like tissues, muscle growth and protein synthesis. Another phase helps with mental functioning like making sense of what we have emotionally experienced, processing what has occurred and then storing it all into usable memory. If we are not getting enough sleep, we are preventing these vital processes from completing.
Here are a few quick questions to determine if this relates to you?
- Are you often tired during the day or have moments of sudden sleepiness? This may mean that you have significant sleep debt- your body is like an accountant. If it does not get what it needs, it will decrease functioning until the debt is repaid.
- Is your weight stable or are you fighting a gain? Research shows that if you’re overtired, there is less interest in exercising or making the effort to make healthy meals. In addition, leptin and serotonin levels decrease, which are the hormones that helps you feel full. This means that tired people are hungrier, have lower metabolism, and crave high-fat and high-calorie foods. In time, this can lead to obesity and type 2 diabetes! If you want to learn more, talk with your doctor or nutritionist!
- Do you think clearly and have good memory? Or does your brain feel a bit fuzzy and decisions-making difficult? Jodi A. Mindell, PhD is a professor of psychology at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and author of Sleep Deprived No More. She states that there are numerous studies that show sleep deprivation “impairs your cognition, your attention, and your decision-making.” There is a substantial decrease in solving logic or math problems, and odd mistakes (like leaving your keys in the fridge) are more common” (For those of you who know me, I do misplace my keys and phone, but never my child).
- Are you fairly resilient to the common cold or frequently sick, making you want to run from the building screaming when someone sneezes? There are a few studies that have shown that those with sleep deprivation were three times more likely to get sick than those with seven hours or more of sleep per night. Knowing how gross Nyquil tastes, this might be worth it in and of itself!
- Are you at risk for heart disease or hypertension? Growing evidence of research suggests that seven or less hours of sleep greatly increased coronary artery calcification- a predictor of a future heart attack. There can also be elevated risks of hypertension, stroke, an irregular heartbeat, and heart disease. Yikes!
- If you have manic or unipolar depression, do your symptoms appear to be extra strong? This relates directly to the story mentioned at the start. Sleep deprivation looks almost identical to major depression, hence the recommendation to fix the real problem, not the symptoms. Good sleep sets up the brain for positive feelings, while deprivation has enjoyment of activities reduced and interferes with people’s social lives. Those with sleep deprivation are also more prone to be angry or violent. (Dement, p. 274)
- What is your quality of life? How long do you want to live? As a final thought, three separate studies suggested that sleeping five or fewer hours per night may increase mortality risk by as much as 15 percent.10
Most of us do not associate these struggles with sleep, but they are very real side effects. If you want to follow Spock’s advice of “live long and prosper,” then quality sleep must be included in the plan. So the first step in making this happen is to do your best to get at least eight hours of sleep per night. For some of you, this might be a huge adjustment. Just keep reminding yourself that any fears of lost productivity will be countered in gains of a refresh mind and better health. If you are struggling to make this happen even though you are trying, the next article will address some behavioral strategies that can address the habits that promote insomnia. In my fourteen years in private practice, I have found that these behavioral changes correct most problems without any need for medication!
Dement, W. C. (1999). The Promise of Sleep. New York, NY: Dell Publishing.