by Lisa Ferentz, LCSW-C, DAPA

As a society, we tend to rationalize and condone our lack of sleep. We feel compelled to get as much done as possible, even if that takes precious hours away from the restorative properties of a good night’s sleep. But in the short-term and over the long haul, a lack of sufficient sleep can take a huge toll on our physical health and our emotional and mental capacities. Our ability to handle stress will be compromised, so inter-personal or environmental challenges that would normally be manageable become exacerbated and overwhelming. There are some clear warning signs that are indicative of sleep deprivation. See if any of these symptoms, taken from the work of Tom Scheve, resonant with you or your clients.

We can experience memory impairment and become more forgetful, since the less sleep we get, the fewer connections get formed between nerve cells. Sufficient REM sleep contributes to the formation and retention of emotional memories. In addition, our concentration becomes compromised. We will perform poorly on tests requiring good concentration, while over-estimating our abilities and overall performance when sleep deprived. Less sleep means an increase in appetite, as sleep deprivation increases the hormones that signify hunger and diminish the hormones that tell us we are full. Our brains will metabolize sugar at lower rates when sleep deprived, so we experience in increase in cravings of sweet, salty, and starchy foods. As a result, sleep deprived people are twice as likely to become obese.

Sleep deprivation is associated with vision problems including visual distortions and an inability to visually focus. Neuronal functions such as processing our perceptions of the world can’t perform as well when we are fatigued. Another common manifestation of sleep deprivation is poor decision making. Lack of sleep impacts the pre-frontal cortex and affects judgment, impulse control, risk assessment, and the ability to organize our experiences so we can make good decisions that have both short-term and long-term consequences. Without enough sleep, many people experience diminished motor skills, and actually function like someone who is legally drunk! Symptoms including slurred speech, stuttering and speaking in monotones, along with slower reaction times are all exhibited in people who are sleep deprived.

Relationship discord is another by-product of sleep deprivation, influenced by moodiness, irritability, agitation, and a decrease in libido which compromises connection to others and intimacy. More serious consequences include the impact that a lack of sleep has on our physical health. Blood sugar levels, blood pressure, body temperature, heart rate and our immune system are all compromised. We are more vulnerable to developing colon cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. We are also more prone to mood swings as we develop hair trigger responses to difficult situations. This can also lead to increased feelings of depression, burnout, and a decrease in our sense of empathy and patience. So, lack of sleep is a serious issue, and one that, fortunately, is in our control to change when we make a conscious decision to give ourselves the gift of a better and longer night’s sleep.

Is this a situation that you, or your clients, have gotten into?  Please share the actions you’ve implemented to overcome sleep deprivation.

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