Do You Owe a Sleep Debt? (DE Coast Press)

Most of us 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 — thereby 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 contributes directly to sleeplessness. In fact, driving a car when sleep-deprived is as dangerous as driving while intoxicated.

In order to reduce that debt, many people combat sleeplessness with exercise, effectively tiring themselves out. This can also reduce stress. But 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 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.

Here are four tips that can help control your stress: (1) Make a list of what you want to do today, and prioritize it. (2) Do things one at a time. “Multitasking” is a myth and accomplishes nothing. (3) Put yourself first by learning to say “No!” Don’t make commitments that you can’t possibly keep. A polite “no” is better than breaking your promises. (4) Live in the moment. Make life a bit of a vacation all the time. Work will seem less like work. And life’s too short to dash through it.

Several years ago on my radio show I interviewed psychologist and motivational speaker, Dr. David Engstrom. 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 things, the disorganization (and resulting anxiety) can become nighttime “chatter” that can drive you crazy. Think of it as having all your possessions neatly organized on shelves — or scattered all over the floor. If you consciously prioritize your thoughts, they won’t be strewn all over the place when you’re trying to relax.

Short of actual medical conditions such as sleep apnea, arthritis or depression, you have the power to get the sleep you need. Go to bed and get up at the same times. Try to clear your mind when you go to bed. Don’t drink a lot of fluids (especially caffeine) right before 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 manage your sleep debt by treating your stress with effective bedtime habits.


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