If you haven’t been paying attention, this is becoming more and more talked about. Though it may seem obvious, far too many people, for far too long have not heeded this sage advice. But in the last few years, there has been extensive research demonstrating that we have developed a culture that promotes sleep deprivation, and the cost is not good. 

I remember this being talked about roughly three years ago while at a sport psychology conference. During one presentation, the lead sport psychologist of one European nation stated that his countries’ Olympic team “mandated” athletes hit the rack for 10 hours a night while at the games. No electronic devices in hand, no tv in the background, no sources of blue light. The goal was to put their own research into play; that athletes who spent 10 hours in bed (asleep or not) were much more likely to be able to perform at their peak. 

More recently, school districts across the United States are promoting later start times for high schools, with the intention of promoting more sleep. How has this panned out? In the last six months, research showed that schools with later start times were four times less likely to have students get into car accidents. The correlation seems way too obvious. 

So what gets in our way? All too frequently I hear clients state they don’t have time to sleep. Instead, they find themselves buring the midnight oil to get large amounts of homework completed. On top of that, they talk about putting in the hours for “extras”; sports, volunteer work, and various other activities that are either required by their school, or something they hope will give them an edge in the college application process. Meanwhile, colleges have been claiming for years that they are seeing an emerging mental health crisis with students who are burned out, have dangerous levels of anxiety & depression, and/or lack coping skills. The linear connection is simple. We are “teaching” our adolescents to overload themselves, promoting a “get tuff” culture, and driving their anxieties with projected worries of failure if they are amazing. Technically, this is called an all-or-nothing mentality associated with a state of perfectionism. While my calendar with teens benefits, I’m not happy to see so many over-stressed kids who really need more sleep.

If I haven’t sold you yet, let’s try this. Sleep add value to our life. As noted above, anxiety is a growing problem in our society. Yet, when people who are suffering from anxiety increase their sleep, they also report less anxiety.  I’ll pause to let the simplicity sink in…….

A key reason anxiety lessens with more sleep is the fact that the brain is “repairing” itself from the day’s activities. As we experience various events throughout our day, the brain is working hard. Similar to muscles that get taxed during a workout, the brain is processing all the stimuli and making neural connections. Each discussion, everything we read, each problem we are attempting to solve, etc. Each of these creates weak links between the neurons (brain cells) throughout our brain. During sleep, rest and dreaming help the brain “clean up” by disconnecting frivolous connections, and strengthening ones that are important (new learning, planning of events, and so on). In fact, we see that students who sleep immediately after studying score higher on quizzes the next day!

And while the brain is getting healthier, the body is too. Sleep allows the regulator processes of the body to do some needed housework. Damaged cells are tended to or removed. Torn tissues are relaxed and begin to heal quicker. The immune system revs up. You process excess nutrients for storage to be used the next day, and burn up others during the repair activities of the brain and body. In fact, sleep is so important that if we disallow sleep for several days people begin to struggle balancing emotions, hallucinate, complain of physical pains, and experience an increase in accidents and injuries. This doesn’t sound “tuff” to me.

The obvious question at this point is “how do we get more sleep?” The first and most obvious one is related to our digital age. Although technology has made some things in life better (and at times amazing), we have lost our ability to schedule our time wisely. Instead, we find that people are “drifting” from activity to activity without the ability to focus and complete tasks. This means that things such as homework takes longer. Heck, I’ve even seen that workouts in the gym take longer because people deep dive on their phone instead of hitting the next set. Talk about counter productive. A good use of technology, and perhaps the most useful thing we can teach young people about their phones, is using their calendar. Teach them how to schedule classes, practices, games, workouts, and STUDY TIME. This helps them make a plan and manage time. The result, getting things done so they can get to bed.

The other issue connected to digital use it having the discipline to put the device away. Keep a simple practice of having no blue light devices in bed. If you read from a tablet or phone, disconnect from the web, turn on the blue light filter, and limit your reading to something light. But definitely stay off social media, streaming, and so on. These activities tell the brain to “wake up”, and add to our stress. As for texting/talking? Unless there is an emergency or crisis that needs to be solved now, I can’t think of a significant conversation that happens into the wee hours of the morning. But the phone away and talk to the other person with a rested mind and fresh body the next day. You will look better, and sound more intelligent anyway.

The last strategy is to re-evaluate your workload. Perhaps you don’t need a loaded academic schedule with multiple AP classes. You can still learn significant things in non-honors atmospheres. Who you are as a student has more impact on learning than the difficulty of course you are taking. You might also need to rethink your commitments. Although you may feel compelled to join certain clubs, organizations, and the what not, you only have so much time. Self-care is really the most important thing you can do. I remind people that the first rule you learn in First Aid also applies to life. Checking the scene to make sure you aren’t about to make yourself the next victim leaves you ready to act when it is really necessary.

I realize that there are times when we may need to make a trade on sleep. But these should be rare and temporary. The long term issues related to sleep deprivation are costly, and the price will be forced rest to heal. Truthfully, the higher the level you want to compete and perform at, the more you need to make quality sleep a part of your routine. Don’t worry about a specific number of hours. Instead pay attention to little signs. You should feel rested when you wake. You should find yourself waking routinely at the same time without need for an alarm. You should be able to make it through the day without falling asleep. Do better at taking care of you, and you might be surprised at how well you function and perform. Should you find yourself needing more help in this area, why wait? Make the call, bring in an expert.

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