No Reason to Lose Sleep

By Daniel Champer, LCPC – Intermountain Clinical Director

Deadened eyes stare. Pasty skin shimmers. Colorless tongues drool. Listless arms dangle. Guttural sounds emit. Rancid odors waft. Zombies? Not likely. There are many more believable explanations for all of these ghastly signs. Would you care to guess along with me? Teenagers? Parents of newborns? New night shift employees? Single parents working three jobs? If you have ever been in any of these situations then you most likely can (somewhat) humorously conjure up memories in which you resembled the description listed above. But what do all of these life situations have in common? The common link for all of the aforementioned circumstances and descriptions is sleep deprivation.

Sleep deprivation is commonly defined as the condition of not achieving adequate restful sleep. Symptoms of sleep deprivation are many. The list includes irritability, impaired judgment, slower reaction times, increased depression, inability to focus, weakened immune system, and on and on. We live in a culture of constant technological stimulation and are constantly confronted with the idea that success has a direct positive correlation with personal drive and industry. We text, type, and tweet. We crush candies and binge watch 80’s sitcoms late into the night. We allow work to follow us into the once sacred space of our living rooms and kitchens. Teenagers and adolescents, who formerly found relief from the pressure of social engagement in their bedrooms, have found these sanctuaries invaded by technological socialization throughout the evening and into the wee hours of the morning. This trend is often compounded by mounting pressure to perform and excel in the academic, vocational, and extracurricular arenas. In short, we live in a society custom built for restricted sleep habits.

The topic of sleep is vast, and science is still attempting to learn all it can about an immensely complex subject. As a result, we continue to learn more and more about the positive and negative effects that sleep has on our waking lives. According to a recent study completed by Alexandra Agostini, from the Centre for Sleep Research at the University of South Australia, sleep deprivation has a snowballing nature. She also found that for teenagers and adolescents, this “sleep debt” cannot be fully paid by sleeping in on the weekends. And, we all know that many teenagers and adolescents rarely receive the 9 to 10 hours of nightly sleep that is widely recommended throughout the health community.

Another concept related to sleep that has emerged alongside the increased use of technology is the idea of sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene refers to the quality of sleep that one receives. This quality can be negatively affected by stimulation close to bed time. Sleep hygiene can decline as a result of many different activities. Increased aerobic activity, technological and light-related stimulation, increased anxiety and constant thoughts all contribute to poor sleep quality. Basically, anything that rouses physiological or psychological activation within 30 to 45 minutes of sleep can have an adverse effect on the quality of sleep that one receives. And so it appears that we are about to head into the murky waters of the age old debate over quality versus quantity. Wrong. When it comes to sleep, both quality and quantity are equally important.

Much of this is not news. The zombie-like creatures that shuffle into our mirrors, kitchens, and classrooms each morning make us painfully aware of the lack of sleep that our society receives. Energy drinks and coffee mugs the size of a flower pot are simply symptom reducers that make it possible to function at a fraction of our potential. Change must be intentional and supported. We cannot simply will ourselves and our children to better sleep habits and routines. So where do we start?

First, we must evaluate the extent of the problem. Track the number of (quality) hours of sleep you or your child receives each day for a period of at least a month. Then, set a goal. You will never increase the quality of your rest if your goal is simply “better.” Be specific with your goal (including a time or date for achievement). Be sure to set this expectation with your child in a clear and collaborative manner. Next, identify all factors that negatively affect the quality and / or quantity of sleep that is received. Remember to consider activity level, technology use, social pressures, and anxious or racing thoughts that you or your child may experience within an hour of your target bed time. Finally, get to work (AKA rest). If these steps are followed yet positive results are not experienced, seek medical attention for yourself or your child as there are many sleep disorders that can be treated by your primary care provider.

Zombies have taken over television, movies, and video games. With a little bit of knowledge and effort in the area of sleep management, we can keep them from taking over our homes, schools, and places of employment.

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