Sleep + Psychology: How sleep affects the mind + How the mind affects sleep

WHY IS SLEEP IMPORTANT?

We all know that getting a good night of sleep is important for our health, but when it comes time to go to bed it can be tempting to stay up to send just one more email, finish off that movie, or cross one more thing off the to do list.

The thing is, sleep is critically important for our health and overall wellbeing. Studies have shown significant health risks linked to insufficient sleep. These include a greater risk of coronary heart disease[1], Type 2 Diabetes[2], and even a shorter lifespan[3].

Sleep deprivation has also been linked to weight gain, through various pathways including increased hunger, increased opportunities for eating (through being awake for longer), as well as increased fatigue resulting in less exercise[4]

It may be less obvious, but sleep also has an impact on the mind, and in turn, the mind has a powerful impact on sleep. Read on to find out more about how they influence each other.


HOW SLEEP AFFECTS THE MIND

Sleep is also important for our mind, particularly when we consider our cognitive performance and our mood.

Sleep affects how we think

In our busy schedules we may stay up just that bit later so that we can work, study, or play hard, however even short term sleep deprivation can result in reduced concentration, memory and performance[5]. Reduced concentration and performance might not seem like such big deal if you’re dozing in front of a movie, but studies have shown that sleep deprivation can lead to the same decrease in performance as would be seen if one was under the influence of alcohol.

One study compared the performance of certain tasks by participants when they had drunk alcohol, and then again when they were deprived of sleep. Results showed that after 17 to 19 hours without sleep, performance was equivalent to when participants had a BAC of 0.05%. Accuracy and speed on both cognitive and motor tasks was impaired. After even more sleep deprivation, performance worsened to the equivalent of a BAC of 0.1%  - the maximum administered in the study[6].

Sure, that’s a study in a lab, but what are the real-world implications? Let’s think about sleep deprivation in each of these situations below:

  • The student who pulls an all-nighter in order to cram for an exam; 
  • The consultant who has to ‘think on her feet’ during a budget presentation she is giving;
  • The person who operates heavy machinery for work; or even
  • The everyday worker who wakes up at 6am to gets into work for an 8-hour day and follows this up with a Friday night partying session, and then gets behind the wheel to get home. 

What happens to each of these individuals when concentration and memory suffers? What are the real risks when you consider these very individuals performing these tasks where their performance is equivalent to that of someone with a BAC of .05%?

 

Sleep affects how we feel

Sleep deprivation can also have a real impact on our mood.  Consider the potential for things to spiral upwards or downwards as the day progresses for you. Let’s look at the example of Paige:

When Paige doesn’t get enough sleep she:

  • Wakes up feeling tired.
  • Is prone to making simple mistakes when getting ready for work because her concentration and memory aren’t in tip top shape. This can lead to ‘lost time’ as she has to question herself or even backtrack (e.g. “Did I turn the iron off? I should probably go back and check just in case.”).
  • Drives to work in peak hour traffic but because she is already stressed from the morning rush, she is quick to react if she is cut off by another car, less tolerant of any obstacles, and feels more irritated.
  • Is frazzled and very frustrated by the time she enters the office, and work (and its associated stressors, including colleagues) hasn’t even begun.
  • Makes poor food choices during the day because she thinks she ‘deserves it’ due to the bad day she’s having, and may even choose to have a glass or two of alcohol at night to help her unwind from the stressful day that she has had.

 

When Paige gets enough sleep she:

  • Wakes up feeling rested and in a neutral or even positive mood.
  • Is able to concentrate on what she is doing when getting ready for work.
  • Is less reactive in peak hour traffic because she isn’t already feeling stressed from her morning
  • Is more balanced in her mood by the time she enters the office, is more likely to have positive interactions with colleagues, and feels better able to handle stressful events that day.
  • Is more likely to stick to a healthy diet and make good food choices because her day hasn’t been overly stressful.

So you can see that our sleep really has the potential to set us up for a good day where we can remain relatively calm, or set us up for a bad day when we are more reactive.



HOW THE MIND AFFECTS SLEEP

So yes, sleep can definitely affect our mind, but how does our mind, in turn, affect our sleep in turn?

 

The choices you make in relation to sleep

The mind is a powerful thing when it comes to sleep. It determines when you set your bedtime (“Just one more episode of Game of Thrones and then I’ll go to bed!” vs. “I know that I need 9 hours of sleep to function properly so that means I’ll go to bed at 10pm”). The mind also affects your choice of behaviours that either promote sleep or hinder sleep (“I really need this 3pm coffee…I may pay for it tonight, but right now I just need to get through the next three hours at work.”).

 

The thoughts you have when attempting to sleep

Sometimes the mind can start to work overtime when you’re about to hit your bed. This can include worrying about your To Do list for the next day, or worrying about a loved one, or even about the things that have happened to you during the day.

There is another special category of thoughts that we don’t often think about – we call them our Sleep Cognitions – it’s just a fancy description for thoughts we have about how much sleep we need, our beliefs about the negative consequences if we don’t get the sleep we need, our beliefs about how we’ll feel or how productive we will be if we don’t get enough sleep.

As you can see, these unhelpful sleep cognitions have the potential to put us in a stressed state – which is quite the opposite to what we need (to feel relaxed) in order to fall asleep.


HOW TO SLEEP BETTER – 6 SIMPLE TIPS

So how can we look after our health and prioritise sleep? The first step is to make sensible choices with our time. See sleep as a necessity, not a luxury. Set a regular bed time and stick to it. On average, most adults will need between 7 and 9 hours a night to function at their best, so factor this in to your regular schedule.

 

Once you’ve done that, follow these simple tips below, to ensure that you’re setting yourself up for a refreshing night of sleep:

1.    Allow enough time before hand to wind down before trying to sleep.

2.     Put away illuminated screens such as phones and alarm clocks.

3.    Ensure the bedroom is dark, quiet and cool.

4.    Sleep on a supportive mattress and pillow.

5.    Exercise during the day, but not just before sleep.

6.    Avoid stimulants such as caffeine, cigarettes and spicy food late in the day.

 

 

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REFERENCES

[1]Ayas N, White D, Manson J, Stampfer MJ, Speizer FE, Malhotra A et al. (2003). A prospective study of sleep duration and coronary heart disease in women. Archives of Internal Medicine, 163, 205–9.

[2] Yaggi HK, Araujo AB, McKinlay JB. (2006). Sleep duration as a risk factor for the development of type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care, 29, 657–61.

[3] Kripke D, Garfinkel L, Wingard D, Klauber MR, Marler MR. (2002). Mortality associated with sleep duration and insomnia. Archives of General Psychiatry, 59, 131–6.

[4] Patel, S.R., & Hu, F.B. (2008). Short sleep duration and weight gain: A systematic review. Obesity, 16, 643-653.

[5] Belenky G, Wesensten N, Thorne D, Thomas ML, Sing HC, Redmond DP et al. (2003). Patterns of performance degradation and restoration during sleep restriction and subsequent recovery: a sleep dose-response study. Journal of Sleep Research, 12: 1–12.

[6] Williamson, A. M, Fayer, A. (2000). Moderate sleep deprivation produces impairments in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication. Occupational Environmental Medicine, 57, 649 – 655.