sleep deprivation


In the vast majority of cases, sleeping is like peeing. You stop when you’re done.

I say this to almost anyone I hear complain about oversleeping. I’m not a sleep expert, but I have read a fair amount of sleep research in my study of psychology and psychotherapy. That research suggests that except in conditions like severe depression or narcolepsy, “oversleeping” should be reserved to mean sleeping past an appointment, like “overpeeing” can really only mean overfilling your urine sample cup.

It’s important to sleep until you are done sleeping and when you can’t avoid restricting sleep, to make up for it later. This is true for how your body functions, how your brain functions, and your overall well-being. If you don’t believe this, you are either ignorant of or ignoring the evidence. Try searching “sleep restriction” and “metabolism,” “cognition,” or “well-being.” There is a good-sized mountain of evidence. (If you don’t like reading academic writing, try searching “sleep” at TED.com or reading Sleep Thieves by Stanley Coren.)

And yet, I wake up to an alarm every weekday, and have done so for many years. This is clearly incongruent with my beliefs about sleep. Waking up to an alarm clock is just another way of purposefully restricting sleep.

So here’s the plan: I’m giving myself 10.5 hours in bed every night, from 9:30pm until my alarm goes off at 8am, until I start waking up naturally before my alarm. It means giving up an hour or two of socializing, exercising, reading or writing each evening, which feels like a lot. It feels like giving my life completely to work, getting ready for work, and sleep. On the other hand, I could end up feeling better and being healthier, and I could stop being such a hypocrite. My wife is on board with the project, so it has some chance of success.

I’ll post again about it in a few weeks.

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Some of my oldest memories are of lying in bed, late at night, wishing I was asleep: sleep-onset insomnia. I’m happy to say that I have largely overcome this malady. I have a sizeable bag of tricks to help me out with it (read about them here), the most important of which is having gotten over my fear of insomnia, which had become the primary source of sleeplessness. For the last several years I’ve had trouble getting to sleep just a few times a year.

For the last couple months, though, I’ve been experiencing “terminal insomnia,” AKA waking up too early and failing to fall back asleep. Most of my tricks don’t apply here. It sometimes helps to stay in bed until my alarm goes off–occasionally I will fall back asleep. Sometimes cuddling helps, too, but I’ve found nothing consistent so far. It’s become a problem: I’m getting married next week and sleep debt tends to make me clumsy, grouchy, and stupid–not the way I’d like to show up for this event!

So I complained about it to my therapist today and he gave me his hypothesis: I am chronically and habitually productive. Productivity is a way of life  for me and it’s infiltrated my groggy, should-be-going-back-to-sleep mind. He is right. I am on the go all day. It never occurs to me to slow down, much less take a nap, and that was exactly his prescription:

“I wonder what would happen if you cultivated a habit of trying, even to a ridiculous degree, whenever you noticed being really tired , just saying, ‘OK, I’m just going to lie down. I’m just going to quit what I’m doing and lie down.’ Even if it seems indulgent or incovnenient. Just ‘F*** it. I’m lying down, I’m closing my eyes, I’m relaxing. If I sleep, I sleep–it doesn’t matter. I’m just going to relax.’ Look at your tiredness as a sort of enlightened messenger, giving you the gift of saying, “Stop it! Stop working so hard. Just lie down right now and be irresponsibly lazy. Just lay out.’

“And you’ll have to deal with the resistance in you too. The well-trained hard, hard worker in you will say “Now’s not a good time… maybe later,” and the challenge is to say “F*** you. I’m not buying it. I’m lying down. For at least five minutes I’m going to lie down, deep breath, deep relax, and invite myself to doze if it happens.

“It’s the next logical progression of getting over the fear of insomnia: The next step is getting over the fear of being tired. OK, I’m building into my lifestyle being tired and loving myself in my tiredness. If I’m tired, I lie down. Why the hell not?

“I want you to take it on as a spiritual practice. Seriously. A spiritual practice of just interrupting productivity as often as possible in order to be lazy and relaxed and tired and just let the earth hold you up. When you lay down, experience the earth holding you up and receive that kind of support. You are a very diligent, principled and hard-working fellow, Nathen, and we have noticed. We got the message. You’ve got that covered. You’ve acheived that already and can let your pendulum swing back in the other direction.”

He’s right that it won’t be easy. As I’ve been writing, I can feel the familiar tiredness in my face and arms, weighing me down, and I’m choosing to write instead of lie down. Well, maybe I will go lie down and finish this later…

This is part 3 of a series of things I learned during my Bachelor’s degree in psychology that I thought should have been headlines in the mainstream news. If you missed them, here’s part 1 and part 2. Again, if you’re interested or skeptical, leave me a comment with a specific question and I’ll give you my references.

Egaz Moniz Was Given the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1949 for Developing the Prefrontal Lobotomy: This “psychosurgery” involved slicing or scrambling the front part of the brain, and tended to produce more manageable behavior in “patients.”

40,000 Human Beings Were Lobotomized in the United States Between 1936 and 1977: These were men, women, and children with “illnesses” like schizophrenia, PTSD, depression, anxiety, homosexuality, criminal behavior, and being hard to manage.

Antipsychotic Thorazine Hailed as “Chemical Lobotomy”: Yes, this was meant as a compliment.

200,000,000 Prescriptions for Antidepressants in the US in 2007: That’s quite a few prescriptions.

80% of Antidepressant Prescriptions in the US Not Written by Psychiatrists: Consider that it may be a good idea to at least see a specialist in mental illness before taking psychotropic drugs or giving them to your kids.

Some Psychopharmaceuticals as Effective as Exercise in Treating Depression: But who wants to exercise when you’re depressed?

Sleep Deprivation the Most Effective Treatment For Depression, By Far: Never heard of this one? Maybe it’ll hit the news when someone figures out how to make money from sleep deprivation.

The World Health Organization Found That Schizophrenics Recover, But Only in Countries Without Easy Access to Psychopharmaceuticals: Schizophrenics can recover? Well, yes, it looks like they can. And yes, the WHO data shows a correlation, not necessarily causation, but an interesting correlation!