If you feel short-changed in the sleep deal, you’re not alone. Many people feel deprived of restful sleep. Sleep debt is a big problem. Deaths from driver fatigue are running at more than one a day in Australia (1), and 40 per cent of Australians are sleep deprived. Sleep debt is a big problem indeed! (2).
It’s clear a good night’s sleep is important to our state of mind. Just ask any parent of a baby who is unwell or experiencing teething troubles! The consequent exhaustion seriously diminishes personal effectiveness as well as mood.
Insomnia as process
If we think of poor sleep patterns – getting less than 7.5 to 8.5 hours per 24 hours on average (3) – as being the result of a poor sleep process we can unpack the elements of this process and make changes.
If my process for Friday night is to drink to excess, party hard over the weekend on ecstasy or cocaine, I will deliver a perfect state of exhaustion by Monday morning.
If I choose a different process on Friday night, say, taking in a movie and getting to sleep before midnight I will most likely enjoy solid recovery sleep and wake refreshed enough to enjoy the rest of my weekend.
Different process, different results! Simple enough, but simple does not always mean easy.
Structure of sleep
Let’s look at the structure of sleep, the stages we go through as we sleep. Initially when we fall asleep, there is still some conscious awareness and alertness. The brain produces ‘beta’ waves which operate relatively quickly. As we relax further, much slower ‘alpha’ waves are evident. This is the time when we are not yet fully out, just deeper than in the beta state. It here curious experiences can sometimes take place. For example, you may imagine yourself to be falling, or even hear your name being called. This can make you jerk back into total wakefulness. While such experiences may feel odd or even shocking they’re not uncommon. Here are the stages of typical sleep cycles lasting about 90 minutes.
Stage 1: This is the beginning of the sleep cycle, and is a relatively light stage of sleep. This may be regarded as a sort of bridging time between alertness and unconsciousness. This stage lasts usually just about 5-10 minutes. People waking from stage 1, sometimes believe they were never actually sleeping at all.
Stage 2: This stage lasts for about 20 minutes. Here, the brain produces more rapid activity and the body’s temperature begins to lower as does pulse and blood pressure.
Stage 3: This is the brief transition from light to deep sleep. This stage lasts about 10 minutes.
Stage 4: At this stage (lasting about 30 minutes), sleep is deep. People have been known to sleepwalk in stage four. People who’ve been awakened from stage 4 are very drowsy, even confused.
Stage 5: In this stage, Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep takes place. This lasts about 10 minutes. Here is where the awesome activity of dreaming takes place. Not surprisingly, there is increased brain activity and most physical relaxation takes place. The physical body restores while mental activity increases. This may seem contradictory; with high dream activity, rapid eye movement, there is optimum relaxation!
Sleep does not follow a smooth, linear transition through the stages from one to five. While sleep proceeds through stages one to four and then back to 3 and 2, prior to REM, and back to 2, afterwards.
‘Doing’ sleep better
Sleep can be done better in many contexts. Strategies are sequences of steps we progress through to produce outcomes. Sometimes these are aware strategies such as our exercise routine. Ten minutes warm-up, 20 push-ups, 10 squat jumps etc. We operate our strategies and produce outcomes.
Some strategies are unaware, unconscious. Unaware strategies, with steps such as, unthinkingly opening a cigarette packet, taking a cigarette, placing the cigarette in the mouth, lighting it, inhaling the smoke without full mindful awareness, form very unhealthy habits.
Likewise for poor sleep strategies. Routinely, taking the tablet or phone into the bedroom for late emails or to catch up on viewing before sleep is an unhelpful strategy. Dr Charles A. Czeisler from Harvard Medical School makes compelling claims for the effect of artificial light on our sleep patterns. He claims artificial light wreaks havoc on our natural capacity to sleep to the required 7.5 to 8.5 hours (4).
Sleep hygiene refers to those rituals around sleep time that are important. For example, one part of putting sound sleep hygiene in place involves making a new ‘pondering’ environment (unusual or non-normal seating or lying arrangement where you process your day or ‘do your worrying’. Limit worrying time to 20 minutes or so.
Spacing the last coffee at least 3 hours before sleep time can prove helpful.
Having water instead of a stimulant is usually much better at this time.
The sleeping environment itself must be free of excessive stimulation (cut TV or device viewing).
Additional considerations in an improved sleep strategy can include levels of physical fitness or physical exercise which can assist with inducing healthy fatigue and encourage longer periods of sleep.
It is clear we are highly stimulated and sleep deprived and, like all debt, unless we rectify we might just default into poor health, or worse, terminal foreclosure!
- Harvard Medical School: http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/need-sleep/what-can-you-do/assess-needs
- Charles A. Czeisler; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pNHcXmiYsBk