How Sleep Affects Emotional Well-Being
Emotions are a physiological experience. They happen in the body, not in the mind. When an emotion fires, our biology changes: temperature, breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, and physical sensations instantaneously rev into whatever gear is appropriate for the current emotional experience.
Since emotions are physiological, we know that to process emotions and sustain emotional balance, we must consistently attend to the physical body.
To be able to sustainably practice being mindful of emotions (listen to a guided meditation here Welcome Emotions Practice), you need a lot of the right kind of support. Think of yourself as the CEO of your body and emotions. As CEO, you need your staff to be well-rested, on time, focused, and sharp so that you can run a successful business. In the case of emotions, think of your staff as sleep, nutrition, and exercise (with a few supporting characters like social interaction, sunshine, and nature). In this article, let’s focus on sleep.
If you are the Chief Executive Officer, think of sleep as your Chief Operating Officer. Sleep is top dog, and the better he is functioning, the better your company (i.e., life) runs. Matthew Walker, a neuroscientist at UC Berkeley and sleep expert, comes to the astounding conclusions:
“After just one night of only four or five hours’ sleep, your natural killer cells – the ones that attack the cancer cells that appear in your body every day – drop by 70%.”
“Every disease that is killing us in developed nations has causal and significant links to a lack of sleep.”
In addition to being more vulnerable to disease and physical ailments, when we lack sleep, we are more emotionally vulnerable. It is almost impossible to regulate your emotions when you are sleep deprived, especially if this is a chronic state. Think of small children who don’t get their naps and the moodiness that ensues. As adults, we employ caffeine, distraction, denial, and plain old “pushing through” to put on a brave face and power on through lack of sleep. That doesn’t mean that we aren’t affected.
I have a psychologist friend who, when nursing her young child and getting very little sleep, thought she was significantly depressed and was considering psychotropic medication. Luckily, she was offered childcare help for the day and was able to sleep almost a full 8 hours. She later told me she was shocked at how incredibly different she felt, and couldn’t believe that she wasn’t depressed – she was sleep-deprived.
Even a psychologist with a Ph.D., who treats depression daily, was fooled into thinking she had a mood disorder requiring medication, instead of realizing the impactful effects of sleep deprivation. Once she had some sleep under her belt, equilibrium returned
Sometimes, by the end of a therapy session, especially one where the client is focusing on being mindful of his/her body, the client mentions to me that they did not realize how tired they were. Even if they had been yawning since the session began and I noticed they looked tired, they didn’t realize the full impact of lack of sleep on their body until tuning in for 50 minutes or so. It isn’t that the tiredness wasn’t there (it was evident to me, as an outsider), they just weren’t able to notice the full impact until paying close attention.
When you aren’t aware, you don’t have control over (and cannot repair or mitigate) what is wrong. If you are lacking sleep but don’t realize how tired you are, you are still impacted just as much and are just as vulnerable, if not more.
When you become aware that you are tired, you can make decisions accounting for the deficit: putting off decisions, forgoing rumination, etc. Understanding the impairment and knowing it is present means you can make concessions. (By the way, remember the earlier quote from Dr. Walker: you ARE compromised from lack of sleep, even if you aren’t hip to it and don’t realize how impaired you are.)
When you get consistent, restful, real sleep without medication, and wake up refreshed most days, you are firing on all cylinders.
What’s the solution?
Should you wring your hands and stress out about all that sleep you’ve missed and the uncertainty of whether you’ll be able to get a good night’s sleep later today? Absolutely not!
Anxious worrying about sleep won’t help a bit, so let’s not go there.
Instead, let’s focus on how you can slowly improve your quality and length of sleep over time. Remember that change rarely happens overnight. We must be patient. If we do persist, it will happen.
Start by asking yourself what one step you can take to improve your sleep hygiene. Sleep experts unanimously agree that having a consistent wake time (getting up at the same time every day whether or not you must) and having a regular bedtime routine are two factors that aid in restorative, restful sleep. Is there a way you can strengthen these aspects of your sleep habits in little ways?
START SMALL and REINFORCE
It is important to start with a small behavior change that you are confident you can execute. For example, if you have no routine currently in place, start a bedtime routine slowly by integrating one thing you do consistently before bed, such as brushing your teeth, washing your face, or making some soothing tea. Then engage in that behavior, resist the urge to criticize (e.g., not good/big enough, should be doing more, etc.), and instead, reinforce (e.g., “I’m making progress!”)
For years, I struggled with not being able to get to bed as early as I would like. That is, I struggled until I applied the principles of reinforcement and behavior change (read more here).
Although I ideally wanted to get to bed about two hours earlier than my current norm, I knew it was highly unlikely that I would be able to make this significant change overnight. I was confident I could start with a five-minute increment. That night, I went to bed 5 minutes earlier than the previous night. Critical thoughts swarmed my head, whispering, “That’s it? So what? You’re still 1 hour and 55 minutes later than a responsible person would be. This change is so small, it’s lame and not worth recognizing.”
My task was to notice those thoughts and turn my attention back toward reinforcement: “I’m making progress. Tonight I am getting to bed five minutes earlier than the last several nights. This is progress towards the goal I am working on.”
WHAT WILL YOU DO?
Now that you have had your attention called to the fact that sleep is imperative to emotional health, functioning, and well-being, how will you prioritize this in your life? Is there a small step you can take to nurture this aspect of your overall health and emotional stability?
Remember, simply reading this article and understanding the concepts will not help you create change. If you want to improve your sleep, define a small step, put it into action, reinforce, and repeat! Sweet dreams.
Listen to this article here.
PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE…
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