Revaluing Sleep

Written by: Jorinde Berben
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When we were children, the value of sleep in our lives was, for most of us, pretty apparent. Many parents, at least where I’m from, want their children to sleep enough. Babies that don’t sleep enough cry. Kids that don’t sleep well throw tantrums and teenagers that don’t sleep get crabby. Add to that the fact that baby’s sleep time is often the only quiet time new parents get, and you find many of them doing everything they can to ensure that their child sleeps well. We build habits, ask visitors not to ring the doorbell and postpone vacuuming until the naps are over. I remember being quite sad when my son stopped napping in the afternoon (and he was young, too).

But as we grow older, the importance of sleep gets pushed back. As students, you learn that how much you sleep depends on how much you still need to study or whether the party is happening or not. Your phone is infinitely more interesting than your pillow, and that curfew your parents set no longer applies.
As adults, some of us even start bragging about how little we’ve slept and how we pulled an all-nighter to finish that project. When you declare that you actually need more than 6-7 hours of sleep to function optimally (which, by the way, we all do!), you might be seen as ‘lazy’ or ‘weak’.

The thing is, our need for sleep doesn’t change as we become older. Sure, we don’t need to sleep quite as long, but we do still need it just as much. There have been countless studies on sleep, and a few years ago, the book ‘Why We Sleep’ by Matthew Walker summarized all the facts on sleep we’ve found out over the past decades and centuries.

The one thing that stood out from the book and that I have been remembering ever since is that sleep is the baseline for your health. You can eat healthily, meditate, exercise and take your multi-vitamins, but if you don’t sleep enough, all of those don’t really matter.

Sleep has been on my mind a lot lately. I find myself going to bed really early when my children are here because I just fall asleep while I’m cuddling with them, sometimes halfway through the bedtime song I sing. But I have a really bad habit of staying up too late when I don’t fall asleep with them. I get caught in front of the screen and keep postponing my bedtime. One of the reasons is that I somehow don’t really feel like going up to the cold room and being alone with my thoughts. The distraction of tv, the internet or social media helps distract me from feeling what I don’t want to feel.

But the problem is, this is a vicious circle. I feel bad, so I distract and postpone bedtime. In turn, the lack of sleep is also correlated with poor mental health. Getting enough sleep is important for your physical, mental and emotional well-being. And yet, a healthy sleep plan seldom seems part of a treatment plan. I don’t even remember my doctors asking me about my sleep habits.

I’m writing this post and sharing the TED talk below by Matthew Walker because it might help someone else refocus their attention on sleeping well and sleeping enough. (text continues below video)

There are many habits that can improve your sleep, such as avoiding screens before bedtime, using a journal to empty your mind and avoiding caffeine and alcohol. But I believe most of us are well aware of these (if you’re not, you can find some here). What makes it so difficult to prioritize sleep is that we just don’t recognize the importance of it. We have somehow convinced ourselves that an hour less here and there doesn’t have an impact, but it does.

Last night, I went to bed at 1:30, thinking I could just sleep in because the children are with their father. Of course, I just woke up at 7:15, about an hour after my usual waking time, and unable to fall asleep again. I’m carrying sleep debt with me for the rest of the day, and I can already feel the effects: a slight headache, difficulty concentrating, slightly moody. Just another reminder that I don’t want to keep falling into that trap.

After this weekend, I’ll start my rest and healing plan for the coming weeks. I’ve written down a list of necessary steps already.

Sleep is at the far top!
(figuring out how to keep that promise to myself is just below.)

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