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Getting Enough Sleep? Sleep Deprivation & Stress


50 - 70 million US adults have a sleep disorder, while 35 percent of Americans report their sleep quality as “poor” or “only fair.” Lack of sleep has negative physiological and psychological effects on humans, and reduce our productivity at work. A RAND Research Group 100 page analysis shed light on the effects of sleep deprivation on the economy. They estimate that between lost work and poor performance at work due to lack of sleep, the U.S. alone loses $411 billion each year. We explore the connection between sleep and stress and remedies to improve your energy and performance.

Author: Siphilele Magagula

Photo 1: Courtesy of Hernan Sanchez/Unsplash

Photo 2: Courtesy of Lechon Kirb/Unsplash


Why Is Sleep Important For Our Physical and Emotional Wellbeing?

Before explaining how sleep affects us, it is important to understand why and how we sleep:

Why We Sleep

On a quest to better understand why we sleep, researchers explored a few theories, one being - our chosen hours of sleep protected us from nocturnal animals hunting in the night in the primitive years, while another, a more plausible theory - to help preserve energy. Further research revealed that although our bodies feel rested after sleep, our brains do not rest during sleep, a lot of brain activity occurs - which we benefit from. Sleep helps solidify memory, helps clear toxins (associated with Alzheimer’s disease), fuels creativity and is vital for cognition.

One of sleep’s main functions is to help consolidate long-term memory—through strengthening certain neural connections, as well as through filtering unwanted memories. Although the brain makes a lot of connections during the day, it is during sleep that it streamlines the ‘important’ connections. Recent studies showed that negative memories are less likely to be forgotten once consolidated during sleep, which might contribute to mental disorders like PTSD and depression.

How We Sleep

The average recommended amount of sleep is 8 hours per night, although not many can boast of such hours. We experience two phases of sleep - slow wave sleep (SWS) and rapid eye movement (REM). SWS is experienced during the first part of the nightly sleep cycle, it is deep, physically rejuvenating. SWS is the part of the cycle where your most important memories are consolidated. REM sleep is the phase where we are most creative as the brain makes mental connections, processes and regulates emotions.

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The body needs both SWS and REM for optimum sleep. When we are suddenly awakened REM is compromised, which according to Dr. Jessica Payne (cognitive neuroscientist and assistant professor at the University of Notre Dame) is cause for concern. This ‘REM Rip-Off’ affects you physically and psychologically.

Connection b/n Sleep & Depression

A healthy night’s sleep involves both phases of sleep (SWS & REM). An inadequate amount of sleep (and REM Rip Off) has been linked to heart disease, increased blood pressure and mortality, it is also linked to depression and anxiety. Lack of proper sleep hinders emotion regulation - leaving you irritable, susceptible to anxiety and stress. When asked to complete a simple cognitive study, sleep deprived participants in one study are said to have experienced greater stress and anger than their rested counterparts.

Brain scans reveal why sleep deprivation can lead to negative emotional responses. When the sleep deprived participants were shown emotionally negative images, activity levels in the amygdala (our emotional ‘control centre’) were as much as 60% higher than levels in those who were rested. According to researchers, sleep deprivation causes the amygdala to overreact to negative stimuli as it becomes disconnected from brain areas that usually neutralize its response.

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This compromised mental state results in an overall weak performance as stress and depression affect the ability to carry out daily tasks which could affect both your work and quality life.

Physiological & Psychological Effects of Sleep

With our increasingly busy schedules, how can we improve our sleeping patterns and in turn our daily performance in the highly competitive modern work environment?

3 Easy Ways to Hack Your Sleeping Habits

Minimizing stressors by adopting healthy coping mechanisms can reduce the damaging effects of sleep deprivation on the mind and body, while improving overall wellbeing, quality of life, and performance.

1 | Get 20 More Minutes of Sleep

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Feeling overwhelmed and constantly tired at work? If your schedule doesn’t permit for 8 hours of sleep every night Dr. Payne says a mere 20 more minutes of sleep per night can boost your performance at work two to three times! 20 minutes extra is quite attainable, even a power nap would suffice. 10 to 20 minute naps are said to be quite effective, however be sure to not exceed 20 minutes as you might slip into deep sleep (SMS), which is hard to wake up from.

An alternative to sleeping an extra 20 minutes could be what Dr. Payne refers to as “sleep proxies” such as mindful meditation or going for a reflective walking.

2 | Reset Your Sleep Clock

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Michael Breus, PhD, a fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine advises having a consistent sleep schedule. This is reportedly the best way to get your sleep cycle to match your natural circadian rhythm. Sleeping and waking up at the same time daily will help regulate melatonin production, therefore training the brain to alert when you awake and give you enough energy throughout the day.

3 | Do Something To Counteract Your Anxiety

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If you find it hard to fall asleep, try to do an activity that will divert your mental focus in order to reduce your anxiety. Exercise is an excellent way to boost your energy levels and improve your mood (your cortisol level will stabilize, leaving you feeling refreshed). Exercise also guarantees sound sleep as it reportedly restores your serotonin levels.


Now that you know more about why we sleep, how sleep affects your mental health, challenge yourself to start prioritizing sleep!

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