Pay off your Sleep Debt!

I’ll bet that many of you can remember the childhood thrill of ‘going on vacation.’ The preparation, counting the days — and the getting up at 3 or 4 in the morning to leave.

Through the fog of fitful backseat dozing, I remember dragging through the rest of the day, falling asleep at the dinner table, and generally being ‘thrown off’ for the next couple of days. For the life of me, unless you had to catch a plane, a boat or a bus, I could never figure out why being rousted out of bed in the middle of the night had to be a part of our vacation fun.

Nowadays, we have scientific studies that explain why this poor bleary-eyed kid (me) spent the first few days of his much-anticipated vacation recovering from his partially sleepless night. Nanci Hellmich, in her USAToday article, ‘If not Snoozing, You’re Losing,’ says that people can actually build up a ‘sleep debt’ that can impair their motor and intellectual functions as the brain ‘tries’ to go to sleep. In fact, many of these studies explain why sleep-deprived people can fall asleep while driving — often permanently eliminating any further need for sleep.

Of course, when your main job is getting cotton candy in your hair and staying in the surf until you look like a skinny prune, losing a little sleep wasn’t that big a deal. But for adults, sleep loss can seriously affect productivity, mood and overall quality of life. Not surprisingly, studies have shown that stress is the number one factor that contributes to sleeplessness. It has been proven that driving a car when sleep-deprived is as dangerous as driving while intoxicated. The hazards are obvious, not to mention the intrusion of drowsiness and lethargy into your lifestyle.

In order to reduce their ‘debt,’ many people combat sleeplessness with exercise, effectively ‘tiring themselves out.’ This regimen can improve the quality of one’s sleep, and also reduces stress — thus bringing up the age-old question: So why does life have to be such a rush in the first place? Is it really worth losing sleep over?

When you’re rushing, it might feel like you’re ‘multitasking’ and accomplishing something good. But, after the dust settles, you’ve often forgotten things, made mistakes and had to do things over. Some people rush because they want to be efficient and get as much done as possible. Yet, rushing often accomplishes just the opposite. Relax! You might get fewer things done, but you’ll get them done better the first time.

Sometimes people feel they have no choice but to rush. In that case, something else must be wrong. There are more reasons not to rush than to rush (including a good night’s sleep). Here are four tips that can help control your stress:

1. Make a list of what you want to do today, and prioritize that list. Not only will it organize you, but it will help focus your attention.

2. Take it one item at a time. If your mind starts to wander to the next item, you’ll get anxious, and anxiety leads to rushing.

3. Put yourself first. Learn to say ‘No!’ If you don’t care for yourself, you’re not going to be realistic about others. Don’t make commitments that you can’t possibly keep. Politely saying no is better than being flaky and breaking your promises.

4. Live in the moment. Make life a little bit of a vacation all the time. Work will seem less like work, and hurrying won’t seem so important. Life’s too short to dash through it.

Several years ago, I interviewed psychologist and motivational speaker, Dr. David Engstrom on my radio show. Also known as ‘Dr. Sleep,’ he talked about how ‘brain chatter’ can make it difficult to fall asleep. How many times have you laid there, wide awake, your brain running full speed, rehashing everything you needed to do, hadn’t done, wanted to do, etc., etc.? If you don’t prioritize your activities, the disorganization (and resulting anxiety) can become nighttime stream-of-consciousness ‘chatter’ that can drive you crazy. Think of it as having all your possessions neatly organized on shelves — or scattered all over the floor. It’s the same thing with your thoughts: If you consciously prioritize them, they won’t be ‘strewn all over the place’ when you’re trying to relax.

Stress and sleep are forever linked. Short of an actual medical condition such as sleep apnea, arthritis or depression (to name a few), you have the power to reduce your stress and get the sleep you need. Go to bed and get up at about the same times every day. Try to clear your mind when you go to bed. Don’t drink a lot of fluids (especially caffeine) right before going to bed. Create your own relaxation technique, and use it regularly.

Unlike that little kid I so clearly remember being wrangled out of bed to go to the beach, you can pay off your sleep debt by treating your stress with effective bedtime habits.