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Sleep to remember (and forget)

Sleeping constitutes around one-third of our lifetime. To put this statistic into perspective, if you live until 70 years old, around 27 years of your life would be spent sleeping. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it is one of the key physiological needs, along with breathing air and ingesting water and food.

Despite the enormous amount of time we spend sleeping, as well as its vitality for our survival, it is surprising how many people suffer from sleep disorders and difficulties. According to The Sleep Council, 40% of individuals in the UK suffer from insomnia, and a quarter of all UK school children don’t get enough sleep.

I myself definitely fall into the 40% statistic. Despite keeping a healthy regime, I consistently wake up feeling exhausted, and on the worst days, I lay in bed for hours not being able to fall asleep. I have done a lot of research on sleep and insomnia— both individually, and as part of my Health Psychology degree.

Before we delve into benefits, risks, processes, and solutions for better sleep, it is important to clarify what sleep actually is.

Being loosely defined as an “altered state of consciousness”, it divides into 4 stages, constituting 2 types of sleep: Rapid Eye Movement (REM) and non-REM sleep. The first 3 stages of your sleep cycle are non-REM sleep, during which your breathing and heartbeat get progressively slower, your muscles relax, and your body temperature drops. After this you enter REM sleep, known as a “dreaming” stage, during which your body is activated again, experiencing increased blood pressure, heart rate, and partial body paralysis. After this, the cycle repeats again, occurring several times throughout your sleep. Knowing these basics of a sleep cycle, we can now further investigate its benefits, expanding on its importance in our lives. For the purposes of this blog, I will only focus on three benefits of healthy sleep, although there are many more.

Sleep plays a major function in learning and memory. This is why it is important to sleep well even during busy times, such as exams — if anything, you’re contributing to the quality of your work by allowing yourself a good night’s rest. As such, research indicates that sleep plays a role not only in encoding new memories, but also in consolidating existing long-term memories. For the former function, it is advised to sleep before the act of learning, whereas the latter function was found to be the case in sleeping after the learning.

Picture source: author’s archives

In addition to its benefits for learning, sleep is also important for forgetting.

Throughout the day, your brain processes and encodes a great wealth of information, much of which will be unnecessary to remember. The capacity of human memory is limited, so it has to prioritise information that is the most relevant for normal functioning — such as your address, your partner’s name, what the colour blue looks like. However, some information doesn’t need to be stored — such as the hat colour of someone you saw on the train, or the customer support number of your phone provider. Healthy sleep ensures that irrelevant information is not stored, and that it is not in the way when you need to retrieve important memories.

Lack of a good night’s rest can also affect one’s mood. A considerable amount of research has suggested that sleep, specifically its quality, duration, and latency (i.e., how long it takes you to fall asleep) are all related to the daytime affective state (i.e., your mood), depressive disorders and anxiety. This was also the case for healthy adolescents across the world, suggesting that poor sleep is a universal risk factor for affective disorders.

Unfortunately, simply knowing the effects of sleep isn’t enough to actually have good sleep. Therefore, it is important to be informed of ways to avoid insomnia.

As mentioned previously, this topic is very personal to me, as I have been sleeping terribly for many years now.

Apart from the general methods that I will describe below, I realised that I had one very unhelpful notion that stopped me from falling asleep.

It is, interestingly, performance anxiety. When I picked up that I am not sleeping well, I found myself dreading bedtime, worrying that it will be another sleepless night — which only made it worse. Interestingly, research also indicates that there is indeed a bidirectional relationship between anxiety and sleep.

One of the most popular methods for treating sleeping issues is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I), which encompasses various techniques, including sleep education, sleep hygiene practices, sleep restriction, and stimulus control. You have already done a crash course in sleep education just by reading this blog up until now, so we will talk about other practices that can help you achieve healthy sleep.

Sleep hygiene techniques are often the easiest to implement and are often sufficient for those with mild or occasional sleep difficulties. Sleep hygiene practices include the following:

● Avoidance of caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol ● Regular exercise ● Stress management (easy to say, isn’t it?) ● Sleep timing regularity ● Reducing bedroom noise ● Avoidance of naps.

Another helpful technique is sleep restriction. It advises keeping a sleep diary for a week to identify how much time you actually spend sleeping, and then limit your time spent in bed only to that. For example, if it takes you roughly 2 hours to fall asleep and you sleep for about 6 hours, in total you spend 8 hours in bed. You then limit your time in bed only to 6 hours, continuing to keep the sleep diary, and adjusting it weekly according to the same principle.

Stimulus control consists of several behavioural instructions:

  1. go to bed only when you are sleepy;

  2. don’t stay in bed when you’re unable to sleep;

  3. use the bedroom only for sleeping;

  4. wake up at the same time every day; and

  5. don’t nap during the day.

These actions will help you associate bed with sleeping and develop healthy sleeping patterns.

Hopefully, today you’ve learned about the basic processes of sleep, its importance for our cognitive and affective functioning, and some useful tips and techniques to nurture healthy sleeping patterns.

Personally, my sleep pattern improved immensely through psychoanalytic therapy, which helped me to alleviate some of the performance anxiety I was feeling. Importantly, sleep hygiene and stimulus control techniques have also been invaluable for improving my sleep.

It might take a while for your sleeping pattern to stabilise, but the main advice I can give you is to tackle the sleep-associated anxiety — this will take the pressure off and truly help you to effectively implement other, more practical techniques.


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