In today’s society, being busy is seen as a stamp of success. Inspirational instagram accounts will encourage you to “hustle harder” or “always be grinding”. Sleep is a waste of time. Sleep is for the weak. I’ll sleep when I’m dead.
But is it time to change our tune?
I live with a neurological disorder that messes with my entire sleep cycle. Left to its own devices, my brain doesn’t know when it’s meant to be awake or asleep, and often gets stuck somewhere in between. My sleep is also restless and unsatisfying – I literally get less of the sleep stage that gives you “rest”.
I’m far from unique. While my condition is rare, troubles with sleep are not. I know hardly anyone who would say they have a good quality and quantity of sleep most nights. We’ve been trained to forgo this basic necessity in favour of “more productive” pursuits – sleep has been transformed into an optional luxury.
As a person who has ventured further than most into the territory of sleep issues, I can say that sleep is easily one of the most important pillars of health. You’ll often hear people cite diet and exercise as the essentials of a healthy lifestyle, and yet sleep beats out both in terms of its impact on the body as a whole.
Perhaps most immediately noticeable is the impact of poor sleep on our mental health. Personally, I have no idea whether my sleep issues were the chicken or the egg, but they seemed to emerge simultaneously with my first mental health struggles.
Of course, it makes sense if you think about it. We all have an image in our heads of what an overtired toddler behaves, and in my life the adult version hasn’t been too different. As my sleep got worse, my ability to manage my emotional states flew out the window in favour of crushing despair, giddying delirium and explosive frustration. In the many years before I finally got my sleep condition under control, I wept in public on a weekly basis, frequently snapped at the people I loved the most and often confused people with odd fits of incomprehensible laughter.
Apart from my mood swings, my lack of quality sleep exacerbated my garden variety depression and anxiety. When you are constantly exhausted, you lose all of your motivation and energy to get out and live a life worth living. When you haven’t been able to rest, your body naturally stays on edge, waiting for any stimuli to set off physiological alarm bells. Over time existing in this state becomes almost unbearable, making it difficult to live a functional life.
People can cause real damage to their mental health by not taking their sleep seriously. It might not be obvious immediately, but studies have shown that people with even moderate sleep loss can act with reduced mental capacity and are no good at noticing their own depleted ability. The effects also add up over time, leading to long term impacts on both the brain and body.
I don’t say this to shame anyone. I understand better than most how hard it can be to make sleep work for you in between earning a living and keeping up responsibilities. In a culture that reads resting as “lazy”, it’s not always easy to prioritise either. But the next time you weigh up the benefits of another episode of Netflix vs another half hour of sleep, make sure that you consider both the short- and long-term effects on how you feel and how you function! Sleep may not be particularly glamourous, but over time the results speak for themselves.