It’s wellbeing month at Teva, a time to focus on and remind ourselves of activities we can do to take care of our mental health. I wanted to take this opportunity to share a bit about sleep, its importance, and how it contributes to mental wellbeing.
In order to do that I want to share a bit of my story. I find that often you get a lot of tips on how to manage yourself, your mental health and “feel better”, but a lot of it can feel theoretical or esoteric. You may ask yourself “how does that apply to me”?! My hope is that sharing my story makes this more relatable, and gives more context as to why sleep is important for us.
The facts on sleep deprivation
Before I do that, I want to quickly share some facts on sleep deprivation. You get told all the time that you need to get good sleep, but do you know why? My problem is that often no one gives you an explanation, which is useful to understand why you might want to change your behaviour. So here are a few facts:
- Routinely sleeping less than 6h a night weakens your immune system
- Inadequate sleep, even for just one week, disrupts blood sugar levels so profoundly that you would be considered as pre-diabetic
- Too little sleep swells concentration of a hormone that makes you feel hungry while suppressing a companion hormone that otherwise signals food satisfaction
- The coolheaded ability to regulate our emotions each day […] depends on getting sufficient REM sleep night after night
- With chronic sleep restriction over months or years, an individual will actually acclimate to their impaired performance, lower alertness, and reduced energy levels. […] Individuals fail to recognize how their perennial state of sleep deficiency has come to compromise their mental aptitude and physical vitality
- The less you sleep, the more you are likely to eat. In addition, your body becomes unable to manage those calories effectively, especially the concentrations of sugar in your blood *
Now you know all of the above, maybe you’re already starting to reconsider how many hours of sleep you need per night? 😊
My experience with insomnia
About 10 years ago I started a new job in an agency, I was still quite junior at the time and it was my first experience of the kind. I was under a lot of pressure, and very early on I started experiencing symptoms of burnout. It was a difficult time and one of the most challenging aspects was that I was essentially sleep-deprived for a year and a half due to insomnia.
The pressure of my job led me to develop extreme anxiety. My schedule was something as follows: wake up between 6 and 7am, take the train to work and start checking emails. Work all day in a high-pressure, high-stress environment. Go home and recount everything that had happened, checking emails until late. Go to bed, mind racing either replaying events, questioning interactions, thinking about how much work I had to do and how I was going to do it… Not being able to fall asleep, if I was lucky until 12, 1 or 2am. Sometimes until 3, 4am… I would count the hours going by and see the time I had to wake up getting closer and closer. I can honestly say insomnia is one of the worst things ever and I don’t wish it on anyone.
It was awful and I was a shell of myself. There were many results of this sleep deprivation and anxiety combination.
- I was constantly exhausted and had no energy. I stopped all activities bar one dance class, and on weekends I couldn’t muster the motivation for anything except sleep
- Sleep deprivation fuelled the anxiety and vice versa, it was a vicious cycle I couldn’t get out of
- I was on edge and touchy – not just at work but with everyone (also a symptom of burnout). This is because I was not able to regulate my emotions
- I had very low self-confidence and was plagued by self-doubt
- I made poorer food choices because I didn’t have the time or energy to cook/feed myself properly
- This led to weight gain, being unhappy with my body, feeling sluggish, lack of overall motivation
I was very close to calling my doctor to ask for help as I didn’t see how I could keep going in such a state. As soon as I finished the assignment that had been causing me so much grief I decided to make sleep my priority, and since then I have become a bit “sleep-obsessed”. I started measuring my sleep thanks to an app called Sleep Cycle, and later thanks to a smartwatch. I made it a priority to make sure I was getting at least 7h in bed a night and now a full 7h of sleep (which means 8h in bed).
I’m still prone to some bouts of insomnia due to being an over-thinker, but I do my best to optimize my lifestyle and lifestyle choices in order to minimize it. When it comes to anxiety I have different ways of managing it, and for the overthinking, I can sometimes get it under control using meditation techniques.
How I prioritize sleep
To this day, sleep remains my priority as I know that if I sleep well I can take on a lot more. What does this mean practically?
- I try my best to get 8h in bed every night, especially on weekdays. This means being disciplined with the time I go to bed, cut off time for activities etc.
- It means that if I know I will come home later I will try to ensure I can wake up a bit later too
- It means I might decline activities that happen too late or choose very carefully which ones I will go to. Compromising on sleep has to be worth it
- Even on weekends I want to make sure I get enough sleep. If I know I will be going out late I ensure I have nothing to wake up for the next day, or perhaps time for a nap
- Napping is an option if I haven’t had enough sleep. Of course it depends on the circumstances but it’s one way I know I can catch up on missed sleep and not suffer the consequences too much
- I will build in time for sleep and rest: for example where necessary and possibly taking a day/morning off, or book-ending something where I’m likely to get little sleep with one or two days for rest
- I try to listen to my body and be in tune with what it needs. I used to be someone who kept going and pushed through everything, and didn’t give myself enough down time. Now if my body is saying it’s tired or if I’m very sleepy I don’t resist it. I go to sleep, give myself a quiet night in, or turn down social activities
I know this can be a challenge with all the competing priorities in life, business travel, not to mention kids. It can be hard to find time to sleep when managing a family and everything that comes with it. It’s not easy to stick to a strict schedule and build in recovery days either, but the important thing is to have it in mind and try your best. I, for one, know that as soon as I don’t sleep well I am grumpier, more impatient, make poorer food choices, am far less effective at work or using my brain for focused tasks, and can more easily be anxious…
Some tips for good sleep.
Here are some common tips given:
- Try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day, as consistency teaches your body when it’s time to go to bed. This one is hard but try your best to be disciplined with your sleep schedule, at least during the week
- Remember that there is no such thing as catching up on sleep, the sleep debt is real. You will never get back the sleep you lose nor fully recover from the damage of sleep deprivation. So while oversleeping on weekends may make you feel more rested (though you also jet lag yourself), it won’t compensate for chronic lack of sleep.
- Quit any screen time/activities at least one hour before bed. Again we all know how hard this can be, but at the very least try to do more “sleepy” or soft activities as otherwise you are signalling your brain to stay awake
- Stop all sports/activity minimum 1h before bed, ideally 2 so you have time to wind down and signal to your body that it’s time to sleep
- Use your bedroom ONLY for sleep and sex. That means no TV, and especially no work. It needs to be a sacred space where your brain and body know it means time to rest
- Try not to eat heavy meals in the evening and don’t go to bed right after dinner
- Soft/dark lights in the bedroom and around bedtime to encourage sleepiness. Bright lights are the worst as they make you feel alert and don’t allow your body to start producing melatonin and your brain to receive the signal that it’s time to sleep
- Ensure the temperature of your room is cool/cold. This is because in preparation for sleep your body temperature lowers, a cold room helps this process
- Make sure that during the day you get enough exercise/activity to feel tired by the evening
- Listen to your body when you’re tired and go to sleep – don’t try to stay up past the point as then you’ve missed the train. This can be pretty tough, but try to go to bed whenever you’re feeling the calling
- Try to follow your own natural rhythm i.e. if you’re an early riser early to bed, follow that
- Again this is quite difficult as most activities are centered around a certain time frame, but if it’s possible to follow it should feel a lot more natural
If you didn’t already know all of this then I hope the above has given you some perspective and inspiration. Sleep really is one of the foundational pillars of our mental and physical wellbeing. I hope you’re able to implement small changes to your daily routine that will support better sleep. Good luck, and sleep well 😉
* All of the facts are taken from the book “Why we sleep – the new science of sleep and dreams” by Matthew Walker which I highly recommend