Sleep and its relationship with stress

June 17, 2022 | 05:02 pm PT
Albert Tiong Country director of the Center for Mindfulness Singapore
VnExpress recently published an article "Lack of sleep taking a toll on Vietnamese". We sleep every day, yet we do not understand it totally.

Sleep is a state of rest and diminished consciousness, but not a total loss of consciousness. Just like the way our computer works - sleep transfers the day's experiences (from the preceding period of wakefulness) from the random access memory (the type of memory used in the moment) onto the hard drive. This frees up the random access memory for use during the next period of wakefulness.

Sleep is essential for restoring the normal balance between the different parts of the central nervous system. During sleep, the body's physical functions are rested and some renewal takes place. Our pulse rate and blood pressure decreases, our muscles relax, and some toxins are flushed out of our system.

Sleep can be divided into five stages - stages 1 to 4 and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. The stages have been determined by analysis of brain waves throughout a normal 8-hour sleep period.

Stage 1 is a transitional phase between waking and sleeping and this normally takes around 10 minutes as a person falls asleep. Sleep then becomes deeper with 15 minutes in stage 2 sleep and a further 15 minutes in stage 3 sleep before moving on to stage 4. Approximately 90 minutes after sleep onset, REM sleep will occur. The cycle of REM sleep and stage 1 to 4 sleep repeats during the course of the night in 90 minute cycles, with each succeeding cycle containing greater amounts of REM sleep. An 8 hour sleep period typically contains about four or five bouts of REM sleep.

Stage 1 to 4 sleeps are stages that refresh the body, and REM sleep is the stage that strengthens and organizes memory. Sleep scientists have noticed an increased proportion of REM sleep when a sleeper learns new tasks prior to sleeping.

We live in a world where we are always chasing something - money, status, happiness, purpose etc. While chasing those things, we often sacrifice our sleep. Many of us are not getting enough restful sleep for many reasons such as:

- Stress: Often caused by relationship issues, work, bereavement, and other factors

- Work: Working on shift hours will disrupt our sleeping pattern

- Activities before sleeping: Some of us tend to exercise before sleeping, which increases our energy level and makes it difficult for us to sleep

- Technology: For most of us, the days when bedrooms were simply places to sleep are gone. First it was the TV, then the phone, laptop computers, tablets. When we use these devices, the blue lights from these devices stimulate our brain which makes it difficult for us to fall asleep. Even when we are not using them, we have gotten addicted to them. We think about using our phones all the time as the brain continues to be on alert for what might be new posts on social media feeds, and so we are not able to rest.

In addition, the physical environment plays a part in the quality of our sleep too. The room could either be too cold or warm, too bright, too noisy. The sleeping surface could be uncomfortable which affects our sleep.

Many people think sleep is not important, and they are willing to forego sleep in order to get more things done in a day. The reality is that sleep is crucial for our health. When we do not get enough sleep, our body does not function properly. It will also affect how we think and behave, and in turn, how we think and behave can disrupt our sleep. What we end up with is a vicious cycle of sleep deprivation.

The effects of sleep deprivation depends on how deprived the sleeper is. It can range from being tired and easily irritable to even triggering episodes of hallucinations and paranoid thinking. As little as two hours of sleep loss can result in impairment of performance and levels of alertness. Sleep loss leads to increased reaction time, reduced vigilance, cognitive slowing, memory problems, poor problem-solving and decision-making. The sleep-deprived often have the tendency to eat more (especially carb-rich food), which may result in weight gain, and that may lead to stress and sleeping difficulties.

For sleep to come, we must find a way to switch our mind and body from a state of high alert to deep relaxation. The body needs to release a sleep-inducing hormone called Melatonin to fall asleep. Melatonin is usually released in dim conditions. Your body temperature also influences your ability to fall asleep. If the body temperature is too warm, you will not be able to fall asleep easily, so if possible, adjust the room temperature such that it's on the cooler side. Your bed should also ideally be comfortable. If your mattress and pillows are too hard or too soft, it's difficult to fall asleep easily.

Sometimes the speed at which our thoughts race through our mind can be overwhelming and leave us lying awake at night. Excessive stress leads to anxiety and depression, which are chronic disorders that have a negative relationship with sleep. Both cause sleep disruptions, and in turn, sleep problems exacerbate these conditions. Constant fretting may keep a person awake at night, and the dread of something bad happening also triggers the body's stress response, keeping it in a state of alertness and preventing sleep. To compound the situation, after a bad night's sleep, a person with anxiety may worry this will happen again, reinforcing the idea that going to bed means sleeplessness, which perpetuates the cycle of poor sleep and often leads to insomnia.

We need something to distract our mind from the stressors. The key to slowing our brain activity at night is not necessarily to try to banish our thoughts, but rather to allow them to be present without being consumed or overwhelmed by them. Mindfulness is a scientifically validated way to manage emotions and mental health. It is the act of becoming fully present with what is happening in the here and now without judgement. By focusing the mind in this way, we are able to put the brakes on our procession of thoughts. Practice some mindful breathing. If that doesn't help, try playing some soothing music in the background. When your mind has something else to pay attention to, your stress level starts to decrease.

If you are unable to address the stressor before going to bed, the least you can do is to get a good night's sleep, so that you are in a better condition to deal with the stressor the next day.

*Albert Tiong is the country director for Vietnam of the Singapore-based Center for Mindfulness. The opinions expressed are his own.

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