Aaah, to sleep. Peacefully. Like a baby, a puppy, a kitty… Is that possible anymore? I haven’t slept well in so long. Every night is a struggle. I futz and futz and go to bed later and later—it doesn’t do the trick. Tell me doc, what do I gotta do?
Sleep deprivation is literally a form of torture, and a very effective one at that. You don’t have to be a fiendish Capulet spy to find out how true that can be. 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, children studies, surveys of truck drivers, shift workers, couples, medical students—all pointing to one simple fact: we can’t sleep. Let’s see what is happening, why, and look at some possible remedies.
What’s Happening to Sleep?
Sleep is under attack from many sources. First and foremost, especially in the westerly and northerly parts of the planet, our schedules simply allow much less 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 is actually very complex and with no easy solution. The reason for this is below the surface and can be uncovered only by identifying that our fundamental belief about sleep has changed. To put it simply, many of us no longer believe in the necessity of sleep, while continuing to proclaim its virtues and benefits, at least out loud. Secretly, don’t we wish we could simply do away with sleep altogether?
Second, we do have a more complex lifestyles 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 the matter: 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 such priorities. What these priorities are and how important they are is a subject for another discussion, and you and I know what it is that we believe we must get to before hitting the sack.
Third, sleep is not as easy 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 light, or rather too much of it, which we have grown so fond of and actually seek. There is the interference of bad air, which is 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!
Fourth, our body. What we eat, drink, smoke, snort, inject into, wear, rub or apply on it. So many of our current medications, self-care products and nutritional practices are designed to address specific issues and may even be very effective, but cause side effects that have a negative impact on the ability to sleep. Again, these modern chemical helpers are (or perceived to be) necessary, and thus take priority over the need to sleep—side effects be damned. In this context, our health status does have a very significant impact on quality of sleep, as in the presence of pains, aches, stress, breathing difficulties, restless limbs, itches, you name it.
Why Is This Happening to ME?
There are as many answers to this question as there are human beings on the planet. Individual situations vary greatly, but the following reasons probably apply to most of us.
1. Reaction to Stressors: 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.
2. Coping Responses: Our inability to cope with each stressor 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 the stressor is multidimensional along time, frequency, and severity scales, and sleep deprivation is often a byproduct of the coping process.
3. Allostatic Load: Over time, 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 (see this post for more details). It is the piling up of stress reaction upon reaction, without resolution and without a return to normal arousal levels, ever. Over time, this situation has the effect of permanently raising the set point of our arousal, whereby it is very difficult if not impossible to turn it down at will when we are trying to relax and fall asleep.
What Can I Do to Finally Sleep Better?
There are so many sleep remedies out there, 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 biochemical agents. Is that real sleep? 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. Until the next morning… and the endless cycle repeats and repeats. Is that the way to get some rest?
So, if you are reading this post for the easy solution to sleep deprivation… there isn’t one that really works. If there was I would be delighted to just give it to you for free. What I recommend is a more nuanced approach that targets the reasons for sleep deprivation, not just the symptoms. Here are some suggestions.
- What are the stressors that can be identified as impacting my sleep? 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 days. Look at the 7 lists, group thought-items together into issues. You now know what issues you are thinking about instead of sleeping.
- How can I address the stressors so that they will no longer keep me from sleeping? Look at your issues and group them into three categories: the ones I can resolve, the ones I need to adapt to, and the ones I can ignore. Call upon your problem-solving skills and address the issues that can be resolved during the day. When you get to bed, stop solving 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 try to resolve them now. Accept that they cannot be resolved just now, at 10pm or 2am. And, even more importantly, accept that these issues will make your sleep more difficult. Instead of becoming more and more frustrated and agitated because you can’t relax, choose not to relax intentionally, 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.
- What can I do to help my body relax? Well, is there one answer for this question? Hardly so. A couple of general principles, though, hold true for everyone: a) many of the chemicals that are introduced into the body can have a significant impact on sleep, and, b) unexpended emotional energy can translate into the inability to relax and fall asleep. The implications are clear: watching for stimulants (in food, drinks, or medications) that can arouse our body at the wrong time and reducing their intake is a first crucial intervention; a second one is learning to release emotional energy through physical activity and by addressing our particular stressors to the best of our coping abilities.