Are you Sleep Deprived? Let’s take a look as we ‘Spring Forward’
By Ariella Soffer, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist
As we ‘spring’ the clocks forward in March, it’s a good time to remind ourselves about the importance of sleep hygiene and all of the ways that sleep supports our health (physical and mental). March 16th is World Sleep Day and more than half of Americans do not get adequate sleep. Below is a short assessment taken from Power Sleep, by Dr. James Maas, and if you answer “true” to more than three of these statements, you likely aren’t getting enough sleep.
Are YOU Sleep Deprived? Let’s see…
I need an alarm clock in order to wake up at the appropriate time.
It’s often a struggle for me to get out of bed in the morning.
Weekday mornings I hit the snooze button several times to get more sleep.
I feel tired, irritable, and stressed-out during the week.
I have trouble concentrating and remembering.
I feel slow with critical thinking, or being creative.
I often fall asleep while watching TV.
I often fall asleep in boring lectures or in warm rooms.
I often fall asleep after a big meal or a low dose of alcohol.
I often fall asleep while relaxing after dinner.
I often fall asleep within 5 minutes of getting into bed.
I often feel drowsy while driving.
I often sleep extra hours on weekend mornings.
I often need a nap to get through the day.
I have dark circles around my eyes.
Why are so many of us Sleep Deprived?
To name a few reasons:
As a society we tend to place more value on productivity and achievement and less value on sleep.
We have a preoccupation with technology.
There is a widespread lack of awareness about healthy sleep hygiene.
Is this really a problem? Yes…
Sleep deprivation is associated with multiple health issues: high blood pressure, weight gain, heart disease, skin problems, immune system functioning, depression, decreased life satisfaction, increased interpersonal difficulties and more!
It affects how your brain functions: reaction time, attention, coordination, creativity, mood swings, irritability, emotional control, memory consolidation and recall.
Many other significant consequences result from sleep deprivation: traffic accidents, medical errors, or critical oversights.
One of the more concerning aspects is that by and large, people are unaware of how much sleep, or lack of, impacts their mood, performance, behavior or health. When someone comes into my practice for him or herself or for a child/teenager – less than optimal sleep is a contributing factor to their ailment at least half of the time!
Let’s consider driving safety: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has estimated more than 100,000 auto crashes annually are fatigue related, causing more than 1,500 deaths and tens of thousands of injuries and lasting disabilities. In recent decades a number of MAJOR disasters have been attributed in part to lapses in judgment and attention due to sleep deprivation: the nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the running aground of the Exxon Valdez and the Challenger space shuttle tragedy are connected with human error due to lack of sleep.
Why is Sleep Important?
It’s outside the scope of this article to cover all of the science behind sleep and its effects, but both for adults and our children sleep restores our body tissues, conserves energy, helps to organize our brain, consolidates learning and memory, releases growth hormones, helps to maintain immune functioning, and aides with metabolism to name a few vital functions. It is embedded in just about everything we do on a day to day basis.
A Little Bit about the Biology of Sleep:
There are 5 stages of sleep.
Stage one is when you are falling asleep. It typically lasts 10-12min; and we can think about it as the transition into sleep. Stages two through four are when your body continues to fall into deeper sleep and the brain waves become slower, your heart rate and temperature continue to drop. All this takes between 30 minutes to an hour. Then, we get to stage five, REM sleep. This stage is where we dream, our eyes make rapid movement, brain waves are active and it’s actually called “paradoxical sleep”. Your brain is active, but your body is completely inactive – virtually paralyzed. This all cycles back through stages 2-5 throughout the night, every 90-110 minutes on average, four times until you wake up.
The REM periods, the most important phase of sleep, get progressively longer as you cycle through, and every individual is different. REM sleep is where we retain memory and solidify matters that need organization; neurons fire to help us learn and perform. Our neurons connect, neural pathways are stimulated, neural networks recognize what they need to in order to organize older information and neurotransmitters are replenished. I know, I sound like a sleep-geek! Isn’t it cool though? REM sleep is imperative for daytime performance.
Let’s make this practical: What can you do to get more and better sleep?
Stick to consistent sleep and wake times.
Exercise (but not within 3 hours of going to bed).
Stay mentally stimulated during the day.
Avoid going to sleep too hungry or too full.
Stop smoking (nicotine is a stimulant)!
Decrease caffeine consumption & limit consumption times (recommendation is not to have caffeine within 4-6 hours of bedtime as it can stay in your system for 8-10 hours; try to stay under 300 mg of caffeine daily).
Avoid alcohol within 3 hours of bedtime.
Take a warm bath before bed.
Stop “screen time” at least 1 hour before bedtime.
Sleep problems have become much more common since the start of the pandemic. If you have newly developed sleep troubles, some additional and practical strategies are below; but don’t forget, sleep problems can also be an indication of anxiety or depression or other mental health concern. It’s always worth talking to a professional if you notice a significant change. Your body is telling you to take care of yourself!
Maintain a relaxing bedroom atmosphere.
Keep your bedroom quiet, dark and cool.
Limit the types of activities you do in the bedroom- no work!
Have a bedtime ritual.
Consider your bed size if shared.
Consider the impact of pets in the bedroom.
Clear your mind before bed.
Try relaxation techniques at bedtime.
Avoid trying too hard to sleep (get up after 15-20 minutes if you can’t fall asleep).
Learn to value sleep.
Use a sound machine to block out disruptive noise.
Use blinds or drapes or wear a sleep mask.
Wind down with something that reduces stress (reading, talking to a friend, listening to classical music or an audiobook).
Pre-sleep cognition (i.e. what you are thinking about before bed) has a HUGE impact on sleep! If you notice you have trouble falling asleep because of what is on your mind, it might be worth reaching out for help. For example, many people use a tactic called “aggressive suppression” in an attempt to suppress critical, self-punishing thoughts, and guess what? This can also get in the way of a good night’s sleep (Gellis & Park, 2013).
If you finished reading this article and realize that you can or would like to improve your sleep, why not identify ONE thing (now!) you can do to start. Small changes, implemented consistently, can make a big difference!
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Ariella Soffer, Ph.D. is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist who owns a group practice in Manhattan. Dr. Soffer’s practice specializes in parenting consultation, sports psychology, perinatal mental health in addition to general mental health concerns. Soffer & Associates Comprehensive Psychological Services website can be found here: DrAriellaSoffer.com