Provision #762: Your Brain On Sleep

Laser Provision

Right before my mother went into the hospital for the medical crisis that led to her death, I wrote a Provision titled Your Brain on Exercise. Then began the 3-week odyssey of waiting, grief, and support that I have written about and shared with you through Provisions. During that 3-week period, many of my normal patterns have been greatly disrupted. Not only productivity, but exercise and sleep have suffered as well. Does that make a difference in brain functioning? You bet! Read on to find out more.

LifeTrek Provision

As anyone who has gone through the experience themselves can verify, the hospitalization of a loved one is a traumatic and disruptive experience. There is, first of all, the emotional impact of processing what is happening. We know that our brains evolved over time and that it is no small task to integrate our physiological, emotional, and rational functions. When emotions loom large, they can hijack the physiological and rational parts of our distributed brains.

To some extent, time has a way of healing that because emotions are passing phenomena. They rise and fall in response to how situations seemingly impact our needs. When needs are being ignored or compromised, we feel bad. When needs are being recognized and fulfilled, we feel good. The ebb and flow of emotions is a lifelong journey and we just have to ride those waves as they come.

But we are not helpless victims on the trek of life. As emotions surface we can choose to empathize with the underlying needs so as to appreciate and enjoy their beauty, even when our needs are not being met. I certainly saw that with my mother. At a time of great loss there was also a sense of deep connection, gratitude, and understanding. That sense was part of what helped my extended family to calm our emotions and to get through the event with a measure of dignity and grace. I am thankful for the healing powers of empathy.

Yet empathy is not sufficient to meet all our needs. Two of the things that immediately began to suffer once my mother went in the hospital were my exercise and sleep patterns. Although it was a sacrifice I was happy to make, I also saw the toll that took on my sense of well-being. No amount of empathy could resolve that toll. At certain points, I just had to say “It’s time for a run,” and “I’m going to bed.”

Working with such standards and boundaries are part and parcel of what the coaching profession is all about. We talk with our clients about these matters all the time. It is so easy to sacrifice both exercise and sleep to whatever is going on in the moment. We get too busy, too upset, too distracted, too tired, or too whatever to attend to these critical physiological functions.

That’s when we end up in a vicious, downward spiral. We’re too tired to exercise so we don’t bother to exercise which leaves us even more tired than before. We’re too upset to sleep so we don’t bother to sleep which leaves us even more than upset than before. These are not healthy ways to live.

I saw that immediately with the vigils we were keeping at the hospital while my mother was dying. Instead of getting a good night’s sleep, we were in hallways and on couches, in lighted, noisy, and disrupting environments, doing the best we could to sleep around the edges. It wasn’t long before our brains were fuzzy and spent from the experience. Today, more than three weeks later, I can still feel the effects.

One reason for that is the role of sleep itself in health and well-being. Sleep is not just the absence of wakefulness. Sleep is an active part of how our minds and bodies renew and restore themselves. Anyone who thinks they can live and live well with little to no sleep is fooling themselves. Unlike computers, human beings are not designed to function on a 24-7 schedule. We are designed to sleep about a third of the time in order to process the day’s events.

And such processing happens on many, many levels. Athletes know that exercise without sleep is a formula for disaster. Not only do we fail to improve, because sleep is when the muscles repair the micro-tears of the day’s exertions, we also risk injury and even death. The longer we go with inadequate sleep the greater the risk to our performance and health.

It works the same way with emotions. The role of sleep is to help us process and recover from the emotions of the day. My entire extended family has reported increased dreaming through this time of loss and grief. Indeed, we have all had dreams involving my mother both before and after her death. It was as though our brains were working overtime to make sense of the experience we were going through.

So what happens when we fail to sleep? We fail to process those experiences and emotions, which means they build up in our minds and bodies until they reach life-threatening levels of toxicity. That is not a metaphor. It is a literal description of what happens to the hormones, peptides, transmitters, factors, and protein ligands that mediate emotionally-charged information in our continuously-circulating extracellular fluids. When those get too far out of whack, in part due to neglected exercise and sleep patterns, we are at great risk of a serious health event of our own.

I am persuaded that that is what happened to me in 2007, when I suffered a panic attack that sent me to a hospital emergency room. It wasn’t that I was worrying about something in particular. It was that my night-time sleep functions were not keeping up with my daytime stress functions. I was not producing enough rest-and-recover hormones, such as melatonin, to mop up from all the adrenalin and cortisol that my mind and body were naturally producing in response to the never-ending stream of daytime deadlines and demands.

It’s understandable and appropriate to sacrifice sleep, on occasion, for events such as the illness and death of a loved one. Indeed, losing sleep is inevitable if they are actually a “loved one.” But when this becomes a chronic condition, we are setting ourselves up for trouble. We are on a collision course if not for a panic attack then for other health and emotional problems. Ever bump into someone who is consistently irritable, impatient, or irrational? Chances are they are not getting enough sleep.

So don’t let that happen to you! Draw that line in the sand and make sure you get at least six hours of sleep (at least 7.5 is better) on a regular basis. To do that, it pays to adopt the following sleep tips:

  • Make sleep a priority; it’s at least as important as everything else we do.
  • Exercise regularly. Physical exercise by day promotes restful sleep by night.
  • Develop and stay with a regular retiring and waking schedule, even on the weekends.
  • Wind down at the end of the day in ways that promote relaxation and calm. Warm baths and gentle stretching can help.
  • Make sure your bedroom is as dark as possible, with little-to-no flashing indicator or night lights, let alone television.
  • Make sure your bedroom is as quiet as possible. If necessary, mask street noises with wave machines.
  • Make sure your bedroom is comfortable but cool. It’s better to use more blankets than to make the room hot.
  • Take supplemental melatonin, before falling asleep, to enhance the restorative value of sleep.
  • Set your alarm clock, if you use one, for no less than six hours after retiring.
  • Plan your sleep in 90-minute increments. This is the natural sleep rhythm.

I encourage you to try out these tips and to find the approach that works best for you. Healthy, adequate, restorative sleep is not a nice-to-have luxury. It is a universal human need that all people would do well to meet and serve.

Coaching Inquiries: What is your pattern when it comes to sleep? Are you getting at least 6 hours of sleep a night? What could help you to push that up to 7.5 hours or more? What practices help you to get a good night’s sleep? How might your life be better if your brain was getting more sleep? What’s keeping you from making it so?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form to arrange a complimentary conversation. 

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.

Thanks for sharing that outpouring of support following the publication of your message at your mom’s funeral. What a beautiful testimony of life, love, and grace. 

The outpouring of support you received was well-earned. You reap what you sow! I am grateful to have received some of your gifts over the past few years (as a learner in Wellcoaches and as a reader of your Provisions). It is lovely to learn that you have been strengthened by the circle of people you have contributed to. My best to you and your family at this time.

These are wonderful tributes to so many loved ones that have come before and now live eternally. Thank you for sharing these to your people!! My favorite quote: “Death leaves a heartache no one can heal. Love leaves a memory no one can steal.”

Thanks, Bob, for sharing these messages. Powerful to share your wonderful impact with so many.

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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