People who are sleeping less than six hours a night are at risk for more cardiovascular events, more likely to develop diabetes, and more likely to die sooner, according to a recent study. People who sleep at least seven hours per night have better immune systems, less stress and lower body weight.
Sleep deprivation can be dangerous not only to one’s health but also to that of others around us. US statistics from the Department of Transportation estimate that 20% of drivers doze off regularly at the wheel, while the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates conservatively that, during an average year, “drowsy driving” causes 100,000 automobile wrecks, 71,000 injuries and 1,550 fatalities. These staggering stats are supplemented by data from the US military, surveys of truck drivers, shift workers, couples, medical students. All pointing to one simple fact: if we can’t sleep, sooner or later the body will react negatively, sometimes with tragic consequences.
Physical Threats to Sleep
Sleep time is under attack from many sources. First and foremost, our work and leisure schedules allow too little time for sleep. While this may seem like a no-brainer and suggest that there is a simple remedy (just allocate more time to sleep!), the problem of sleep scheduling appears to be more complex and somewhat intractable. The reason for this may be below the surface and may be due to a change in how we perceive sleep. While we continue to proclaim its virtues and benefits, at least out loud, aren’t many of us secretly wishing that we could simply do away with sleep altogether?
Many people have a more complex lifestyle that demand an ever finer slicing of time slots. Time is a finite resource that can be neither reduced nor expanded, which forces a setting of priorities. And here is the heart of another problem: for many people sleep is no longer a priority. In fact, it is often considered a time waster that can keep us from other, more important activities.
Another potential problem is that sleep is not as undisturbed as it once was, in environmental terms. There is the interference of noise, either unwanted or induced (as in keeping music, TV or noise-makers on to “help us fall asleep”). There is the interference of artificial light, or rather too much of it, which we have grown so fond of and subconsciously seek. There is the interference of artificially controlled air, which may be either too dry or too humid or too hot and all variables in between. The A/C or fan or heater is on, adding to noise. One just can’t win the environmental battle in the bedroom!
What we eat, drink, smoke, snort, inject, wear, rub or apply can interfere with sleep. Medications, self-care products and nutritional practices that are designed to address specific issues may be very effective, but can cause side effects that have a negative impact on our ability to sleep. These modern chemical helpers may be (or perceived to be) necessary to fix a specific issue, and thus take priority over side effects that may include a negative impact on sleep.
Psychological Threats to Sleep
Individual situations vary greatly, but the following are probably perceived by most sleep-deprived individuals.
Our own individual and habitual way of reacting to stressors large and small may have a significant impact on sleep. By suppressing a necessary release of emotion in the face of a stressor, we may temporarily “bury” feelings, thoughts, and impressions that find a way of resurfacing later, just when we are trying to relax and fall asleep.
Our inability to cope with significant stressors in a timely and effective way may impact our ability to sleep. Not all stressors can be taken care of, i.e. eliminated, in a swift and painless way. Many do linger on, while we are looking for the right solution. Many stressors can be reduced in intensity or frequency. Others can be tolerated or ignored, after a suitable period of adjustment. Some stressors are of such magnitude and impact that we can only resolve them by removing ourselves from their influence, i.e. by moving away. Whatever the case may be, our coping response to stressors is multidimensional along time, frequency, and severity scales, and sleep deprivation is often a byproduct of the coping process.
Our stress level may rise and remain at high levels throughout the day, including the time when we’d need it to be lower so that we can fall asleep. This phenomenon is called our individual allostatic load. Allostatic load is the piling up of stress reaction upon stress reaction, without resolution, and without a return to normal arousal levels. Over time, this situation has the effect of permanently raising the set point of our stress level, whereby it is very difficult if not impossible to turn it down at will when we are trying to relax and fall asleep.
The Path to Better and Longer Sleep
There are so many sleep aids available nowadays, it’s a wonder we can even stay awake! Fact is, most of them don’t work. The ones that do work do so by simply knocking us unconscious via powerful chemical agents. Is that real sleep? Many people report that it does not seem to refresh and restore, and chemically-induced relaxation simply bypasses the issues and turns the switch off. When we reawaken, these issues return and require another dose to be shut off again. This cycle repeats and repeats. Is that the way to fix this and get some rest?
The fix must start with identifying the stressors that keeps us from falling or staying asleep. Each night when you are trying to go to sleep, make a list of the thought-items that are swirling around in your mind. Do so for 7 nights. On the 8th day, look at the 7 lists, group thought-items together into issues. Now, you know within a good approximation what issues are keeping you awake.
Next, address the stressors so that they will no longer keep you from sleeping. Look at your issues and group them into three categories: the ones you can resolve, the ones you need to adapt to, and the ones you can ignore. Call upon your problem-solving skills and address the issues that can be resolved during the day. When you get to bed, intentionally stop trying to solve problems. Give yourself a break until the next day.
What about the issues I can’t resolve? Here’s a radically different piece of advice: don’t even try to resolve them now. Accept that they cannot be resolved at 10pm or 2am. And, even more importantly, accept the idea that working on these issues will make your sleep more difficult and that it’s an exercise in futility. Instead of becoming more and more frustrated and agitated because you can’t relax, choose not to acknowledge your situation and don’t fight its impact. This may be the time to read a good book, go get a cup of herbal tea, listen to the crickets, make your list, jot down a few ideas about the screenplay, instead of tossing and turning and trying in vain to go to sleep.