If you live to the ripe old age of ninety years old, then thirty years of your time on earth will be spent asleep (based on the recommended eight hours of sleep you should get a night).
What’s happened in the last three decades of your life?
For myself, I hit my 30th birthday milestone a couple of years ago, and so rewinding the clock back is pretty much spanning the entirety of my life – learning to walk and talk, start and finish primary and secondary school, learn to drive, go to university, travel to different parts of the world, complete my Masters degree, start and work my way up the career ladder, travel to even more parts of the world, starting my own business…
When you look back on your last thirty years it might also include getting engaged, getting married, having children, buying pets, training and competing in the olympics, having grand-children, retiring and playing lots of golf…the list goes on.
So take a few seconds to think about it.
Now imagine sleeping through the entirety of that time….
For something that we spend doing for nearly a third of our entire lives, we know relatively little (and think even less) about the importance of sleep, the plethora of health benefits it brings, and the necessity behind having plentiful sleep every night.
Now, thanks to huge advancements in brain scanning technology, more and more of the brain and the effects of sleep are being discovered and shared. Importantly, for the purpose of coaching, it means there is now further depth and understanding around neuroscience and the link of sleep to our behaviours and actions.
So what’s the impact of a lack of sleep on how we react to situations in our daily lives?
Lack Of Sleep & Your Emotions
A structure located in the left and right sides of the brain, called the amygdala – a key hot spot for triggering strong emotions such as anger and rage, and linked to the fight-or-flight response – showed well over a 60 percent amplification in emotional reactivity in the participants who were sleep deprived. It was as though, without sleep, our brain reverts to a primitive pattern of uncontrolled reactivity. We produce unmetered, inappropriate emotional reactions, and are unable to place events into a broader or considered context.
(Matthew Walker – ‘Why We Sleep’)
How many of us can relate to that? *raises hand up to be counted*
Let’s set the scene:
You have a couple of nights in a row of shortened or disrupted sleep (or potentially months if you’re a new parent!) Your alarm clock goes off and you wake up feeling really groggy, and if you’re bed could talk it would be screaming at you; ‘Come back, get more sleep, finish what you started! It’s warm and cosy under this duvet!’ But life and its requirements and commitments means you have to get up and press on with the day. The hours tick by and at 8:30pm that evening you finally get to slump onto the sofa and put your feet up. Now, with your cup of tea in hand, you have a chance to take a few minutes to reflect about how your day went, and parts of it seem to have been rather emotionally charged:
- You left the house, jumped in the car, got down the road and realised you’d left your lunch on the kitchen counter. You’re already late so drive back to the house frantically to get it. You pass your partner who is putting the kids in the other car to get them to school before going to work too, and who jokily says ‘you forgot your lunch again? Maybe you need to superglue a post it note to your head in the morning to remember to bring it with you’. You don’t see this as a joke and you fly off the handle. This isn’t the time for jokes, you’re late. You then proceed to start a bickering argument with your partner on the driveway. By the time you’re done, all of you are now running late (and you’re really late).
- As you’re driving to work another car cuts you up on the motorway. You decide the driver must have done it on purpose and you start making hand gestures and calling him/her every name under the sun. You also angrily speed up to overtake the car to really make your point and make one last hand gesture and shout as you drive past.
- You get to work and the morning seems to fly by, you end up having a good few laughs with your colleagues and feel like you’re on cloud nine.
- Just after lunch your boss says she wants to see you – although you have no reason to think it’s to discuss anything negative, your thoughts and emotions run away with you, and you spend the next hour before the meeting sitting at your desk worrying and stressing about what you may have done wrong, and somehow end up at the conclusion that she must want to fire you. As you sit down in front of her you’re already working out how you’re going to explain losing your job to your partner, you have a whole speech prepared. It turns out the boss only wanted to chat to you about some ideas for marketing a new product.
- During the afternoon presentation, you fluffed up on one of the slides and spend the car journey home beating yourself up about how you got it wrong and the embarrassment of it all in front of your colleagues. You can’t stop replaying what happened in your head, and keep adding in additional thoughts such as ‘I’m awful at public speaking, I always mess up something’ and ‘I won’t ever be asked to do another presentation by the boss after making a complete arse of myself in there’.
Looking back, it seems like it was quite a roller coaster of a day, where emotion was taking you on the ride, and reason had gone off for the day on its own, to spend some time away from you.
Why are emotion centers of the brain so excessively reactive without sleep?
After a full night of sleep, the pre-frontal cortex (the region of the brain that sits just above your eyeballs…is associated with rational, logical thought and decision-making) is strongly coupled to the amygdala, regulating this deep emotional brain center with inhibitory control. With a full night of plentiful sleep, we have a balanced mix between our emotional gas pedal (amygdala) and brake pedal (prefrontal cortex). Without sleep, however, the strong coupling between these two brain regions is lost. We cannot rein in our atavistic impulses – too much emotional gas pedal (amygdala) and not enough regulatory brake (prefrontal cortex). Without the rational control given to us each night by sleep, we’re not on a neurological-and hence emotional-even keel.
(Matthew Walker – ‘Why We Sleep’)
Our brains are primarily built from a stand-point of self-preservation and to protect us from harm. As we evolved, our pre-frontal cortex came into being and acts as the ‘manager’ for our minds. Its job is to look at any given situation through the ‘bigger picture’ lens, adding logic and rationale, in an effort to balance out the noise that our raw emotions are making about the situation in the heat of the moment (who by the way, are a noisy and strong bunch to quieten down as they’ve had a few hundred thousand years headstart in runnning the mind and growing in strength before the pre-frontal cortex came along).
Without this ‘check-and-balance’ part of our brain being present we’d be constantly letting out our emotions through fist fights and shouting matches with everyone and anyone who has done something that we deem as a ‘threat’ to us. This would be over even the smallest of things, such as someone making a joke about forgetting your lunch.
Therefore, when you don’t sleep enough your amygdala is not kept in check by your pre-frontal cortex, and it effectively runs wild. You seem to be making decisions and acting off of your emotional reactions, of which these feelings are further exacerbated by your lack of sleep. Everything you experience has much more of an extreme feel to it, such as a feeling impending doom, and feeling like it’s the ‘worst day ever’.
Subsequently, what you’re also saying to yourself when you haven’t slept enough will be through your ’emotions lens’. Comments which demonstrate you’re not keeping the situation in context, such as ‘I always get that wrong’, ‘why don’t I just give up’, ‘why does things like this always happen to me?’ can be a good indicator that your amygdala is running the show.
After one or two nights of good and adequate sleep you’re are able to restore a more balanced view. You end up looking back on the exact same situations that had caused such reactionary and highly emotional response, and find yourself quite bemused at just how angry/upset/worried/enraged/ you were by it all.
We are now in such a health conscious society, where there are endless documentaries, articles and conversations around the importance of healthy eating, exercise, and being thoughtful about what we put into our bodies in order to live healthier and longer lives. Sleep is the central foundation for which all those other health actions and benefits rest, and yet as a society we are choosing to not prioritise it, which is to our own detriment.
So What Can You Do About It?
- Buy the book ‘Why We Sleep’:
This is the most fact filled 340 pages I have ever read, and its all dedicated to findings from sleep research and studies. Writing this blog post in fact stemmed from how the book has hugely impacted me on a personal level regarding how I view my own sleeping habits, because it’s taught me so much necessary and vital information about what the human body needs from sleep that I previously had no idea about. Even if you don’t have time to read it in its entirety, look at the chapters list and find those sections that are of most interest to you, such as topics around:
- The different stages and types of sleep that are needed for babies (also in utero), children, teenagers and adults,
- Sleep deprivation and the MANY negative effects it can have on your physical and mental health (cancer, heart attacks, ADHD, alzheimers, shorter life span)
- The difference in NREM (deep) sleep and REM (dream) sleep and why you need both in sufficient amounts
- Dreams and creativity
- The impact of caffeine, alcohol and drugs on your quality of sleep
- Sleep disorders and medication
- The impact and damage blue LED lights from our phones and ipads are having on our sleep
- Looking at the purpose of why we dream
- If you’re a night owl or an early riser and the problems that a 9 – 5 work structure causes regarding our levels of productivity
- The importance of your circadium rhythmn (linked to your internal body clock that tells you when its time to sleep and when to wake up)
- Getting the right amount of sleep:
The recommended sleep needed for adults is eight hours, so do your best to allow yourself adequate time for a good bed time routine in order to have the best chance of getting those forty winks of sleep that you need. (Before you say ‘I only need five hours!’ or ‘We don’t need eight hours sleep’ – I would strongly urge you to read the book, and if you still insist on that viewpoint then take it up with the author, who is a renowned scientist with endless sleep studies under his name proving his findings). If you have children then getting this amount of sleep every night might be next to impossible, especially if they’re very young – but knowing what you need to aim for means that any little steps you can take to maximise the sleep you’re able to have each night is a big step in the right direction.
If you get the opportunity to take a short nap in the day then go for it and grab those extra minutes kip on a daily basis when you can! The benefits to your health and productivity are greatly increased when wake up from these twenty winks. When I was younger I vividly remember making fun of my dad when he, without fail, would doze off for twenty minutes on the sofa during weekend afternoons. Now when I go back to visit my parents, I sit on the comfy recliner chair next to him and nap too. He had it right all along.
- Continue to grow your sleep knowledge:
Keep yourself up to date on any new findings that come out and continue to educate yourself and your family, friends and community – but please be cognisant about the source – following renowned scientists and sleep researchers is the way to go. For articles in newspapers, please take these with a pinch of salt. Depending on the publication, certain journalists/tabloids frequently only extract parts of findings to further a point/arguement they are trying to make or prove. Ensure that what they’ve written gives the entire picture of the findings. If you can read from original source they quote thats always a good idea, to see if it’s reputable.
Taking our sleep seriously and treating it as a matter of priority is key, not only for our health, but also because it has a direct impact on how we make our decisions, which will affect our immediate and long term goals and plans. Only those decisions, actions and behaviours which have a strong balance and connection of emotion alongside rational and logical thought are the ones we know we can trust to be in our best interest to take.