Counting Sheep (Part I)

Working till late to make your deadline.
Not managing to get asleep.
Waking up in the middle of the night.
Getting sleepy at work.

Sleep and stress (especially work stress) are inextricably linked.

This blogpost is written in two parts: Part I focuses on the relationship between sleep and stress. The next post, Part II, takes a more positive turn with tricks to sleep better and feel less stressed.

Why do we sleep, Anyway?

Sleep is a necessary human function —it allows our brains to recharge and our bodies to rest. One way to think about the function of sleep is to compare it to another life-sustaining activity. Take for instance: eating. It is relatively easy to grasp the role of eating: physically consuming the substances our bodies need. But eating and sleeping are not as different as they might seem.

Both eating and sleeping are regulated by powerful internal drives. Going without food produces the uncomfortable sensation of hunger, while going without sleep makes us feel sleepy. And just as eating relieves hunger and ensures that we obtain the nutrients we need, sleeping relieves sleepiness and ensures that we obtain the sleep we need.

Still, the question remains: Why do we need sleep?

Scientists have explored the question from many different angles. They have examined, for example, what happens when humans or other animals are deprived of sleep.

Sleep is a way of “recharging,” and is important for functions including: memory, muscle repair, mood and our immune system. A lack of adequate sleep can affect judgment, mood, ability to learn and retain information, and may increase the risk of serious accidents and injury. In the long run, chronic sleep deprivation may lead to health problems including: obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. In short: we need to sleep.

Brain in Overdrive

Stress is our body’s natural reaction to a potential threat. It’s a fight or flight response that allows us to outrun a grizzly bear or fight off an animal far more powerful than we are. Once our bodies identify a threat, we prepare for war (or getting the heck out of there): muscles tense up, the heart starts beating faster and blood flows away from any non-essential body system.

From this, it’s quite obvious that when you're worried and stressed (that is, you are in this fight or flight mode) your brain remains hyperactive, leaving you wide awake.

But the inverse is also true: lack of sleep, as we saw above, affect memory, judgment and mood. It makes you less able to focus and more irritable. It influences how much stress you experience and how much stress you can take. A survey by the American Psychological Association shows the consequences of not getting enough sleep: more than half (53%) of people report feeling sluggish or lazy, 38% report feeling irritable, 29% report they have trouble concentrating and 25% report feeling no motivation to take care of responsibilities. 

So, let's summarise:

Stress makes it difficult to fall sleep, less sleep is more stress, and more stress is less sleep, and so on... You get the idea of the vicious cycle of stress and exhaustion.

However, this also opens up the possibility of managing stress by managing sleep, and vice versa.

Getting asleep

We are all familiar with the counting sheep-exercise, used to put oneself to sleep. We envision an endless series of identical white sheep jumping over a fence, while counting them. This activity is presumably so boring to induce instant sleepiness. But it is also something simple, repetitive, and rhythmic, all of which are known to help us sleep.

This age-old sheep-trick indicates people have always find it difficult to fall asleep. However, in recent years we manage to get less and less sleep. According to a large-scale study by the University of Chicago, we are sleeping one hours less than we did 40 years ago. In the 1970s, most Americans slept about 7.1 hours per night: Now the mean sleep duration has plunged to 6.1 hours.

Bedtime Procrastination

We covered the idea of procrastination in an earlier post. Procrastination is when postpone things that you should be focusing on right now, in favor of doing something that is more enjoyable, but also less urgent and useful.

The exact same thing can happen for sleep: Bedtime Procrastination. We postpone going to bed. Sometimes because we have a report due the next morning (because of earlier procrastination?), but often for seemingly no good reason. We might just feel active, unrestful, not sleepy, and then think: “let’s check our e-mail or Facebook timeline, perhaps it helps.”

The easiest thing to blame for our messed-up sleep schedule is modern technology. Smartphones, tablets and computer screens all emit a bluish light; great for saving power, but also notorious for disrupting our body clocks.

However, an even bigger problem might be that we live in a world where stimulation doesn’t stop when the sun goes down and it’s making us all addicts. Research shows that every time we check our email, Twitter feed or Facebook timeline and find a new piece of information, we get a shot of dopamine —a chemical our brains release to simulate pleasure. Obviously, dopamine does not help to get to sleep. Hence, checking our e-mail or Facebook before going to bed is not a good idea. 

You can read about better ideas in our next blogpost: Counting Sheep (Part II)

...for now: we wish you good night