Sleeping is a very important part of people’s lives. It is essential for the growth and development of the body as well as the cognitive functioning. That is why people spend approximately one third of their lives sleeping. Kids usually sleep for 10 hours a day and adults spend about 8 hours sleeping. Or at least they should. I personally don’t know anybody who hasn’t had any problems with their sleeping at all. Whether it is because of excitement, distress, because of studying for an exam or for any other reason, I believe we have all experienced a sleepless night at least once. And the problem is not the sleepless night per se, but the day(s) after that.
A number of people experience some kind of sleeping disorder that prevents them from falling asleep, staying asleep or getting a quality night time sleep. The reasons for this can be many, including strong emotions, some health issues, different work shifts or external factors such as noise or discomfort. It is normal for this to happen once in a while because of some extraordinary situation, but it gets problematic when this state lasts longer and/or happens for no obvious reason.
People who spend longer period without sleeping usually have misperceptions about their need for sleeping and their behavior during the day.
The second night out on my last vacation, I was already tired but I ignored that because I didn’t want to feel tired. I didn’t even think about going to sleep, I was just a little bit grumpy for some time, but I knew that it is just a temporary bad mood and it is going to change soon. I partied all night long and I went to sleep early in the morning. I woke up a few hours later full of energy and ready for another active day. I was really glad that I didn’t sleep until the afternoon and didn’t ‘miss’ the day there.
This feeling of being ‘full of energy’ is actually kind of a mix of hyperactivity and restlessness which is a common consequence of sleep deprivation. The organism is really tired and still uses a lot of energy to stay awake and function normally. Because of this, that sensation can’t be continuous – it’s fake. So what happens is that the energy and the mood bounce from one extreme to another. Therefore, a sleep deprived person can be very cheerful and energized in one moment and then feel depressed and exhausted a few moments later. This can also lead to irritability and impulsive (over)reactions about situations that might not be that big of a deal.
After having been awake for over 40 hours straight my body started to feel weak and weird. I had a sensation of very soft tingling and numbness throughout all my body, it felt like it wasn’t mine, like I just carry it around with a lot of effort. Since I had to work a night shift several hours later, I wanted to literally force myself to sleep. I went to bed and tried to relax when my roommate came in and told me to get up for some reason that was absolutely irrelevant for me at the moment. She knew that I work night shifts and have troubles falling asleep. I exploded. We had such a huge fight, I was yelling and I burst into tears. She couldn’t understand my reaction, I couldn’t understand how can she be so inconsiderate. I was furious. I went out, walking towards my workplace. While I was trying to stop crying, I chose the darkest roads so nobody would see me like that. Luckily nothing bad happened, but that sure wasn’t the smartest thing to do.
Similar to emotional reactions and decision making, all other cognitive functions are affected by the lack of sleep. Attention and concentration are impaired, so it is hard to focus and since important processes of memory consolidation happen while we sleep, it is highly likely that in sleep deprived state one will be unable to remember or reproduce new material. Moreover, due to the tiredness and sleepiness, reaction time is significantly longer than usual, which could lead to very risky behavior. Another side effect is the anxiety and anger produced by not being able to sleep, knowing its importance and benefits.
A week before my IELTS exam, I tried to regulate my sleeping order by not staying late at night and studying during the day. It didn’t work perfectly well, but it did help. The night before the exam I planned to go to bed around midnight so I wouldn’t wake up in the middle of the night, but still get enough sleep. I took two ‘Vitamin B’ pills to help me relax and sleep. Nevertheless, I woke up around 4 AM and couldn’t fall asleep for a few hours. I kept telling myself ‘Ok, sleep! Sleep now! This is the only time you get to sleep before the exam. You have to sleep! You need to sleep before the exam! Please fall asleep…’ Guess what?! It didn’t work.
In some extreme cases sleep deprivation can increase the risk of some health issues, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity or diabetes. However, it does not cause long term consequences when it happens occasionally and for short periods of time. It is the behavior under these circumstances that can cause unwanted events or problems in social relationships.
Spending less time asleep has a reason or a purpose and in many cases is a conscious decision. The problem starts when it becomes a ‘habit’ or a repeated pattern and it lasts longer while losing its initial purpose. The good news is – it can be fixed. For example, if the reason is some external factor, like noise, caffeine, alcohol or variable working schedule, the sleeping problem will go away when the reason is eliminated. If the factors influencing sleep are internal and not so obvious, like some worries or thoughts, one can work on identifying the real reason and function and try to find other ways of dealing with the situation. This can sometimes be a long and difficult process, but it gives long term results. Sleeping pills, on the other hand, can be effective as a quick and short term solution. As for the cases when not sleeping is a conscious decision and it becomes a problem, the question to be asked is: “Is this the only way to achieve what I want?”