When we think of sleep, we often think that sleep is sleep - It’s all the same - just a black, unconscious, passing out. But in reality, our sleep is made-up of 90-minute sleep cycles, and in a good night’s sleep, we go through about 5 to 6 of these sleep cycles.
And within each sleep cycles, there are 4 stages of sleep, each having its unique purpose and function that it serves in your mind and body. The first 2 stages are called Non-REM sleep that takes care of a lot of physical recovery of your body from the day, including strengthening your immune system, but it’s also important to recover from the stress of the day and to cement all that you learned during the day. Stages 3 and 4 are what known as the deep stages of sleep. This is where you dream and the subconscious mind processes a lot of emotional stuff that you avoid thinking about during the day. The deep stages of sleep is where your brain regenerates your brain energy or the sleep power that helps you function the next day.
When you try to make-up for sleep from the lack of sleep the night before, this REM sleep is where most of that recovery sleep goes - to regenerate the brain power that you have been running low on. And while that may sound great on the surface, it also means that your body isn’t able to make-up for the other 3 stages of sleep as much.
And this is also why it’s not just about getting that 8 hours of sleep, but rather the quality of your sleep matters a lot. In fact, studies have shown that when the quality of sleep is good, you need less sleep cycles, compared to poor quality of sleep, where you end-up wanting to sleep more.
So now that we know how sleep actually functions, let’s talk about what happens to your emotions and mental health, when you don’t get enough sleep.
Why is sleep important for your mental health?
In order to understand how sleep impacts your mental health, there is a very important thing you would need to understand first, and that is Sleep Debt.
Sleep debt is a clever term that represents when your body is deprived of sleep. So if you think of your body as a bank account of energy, from where you withdraw energy to use all sorts of mental and physical things when you’re awake, and then replenish this energy bank account with sleep, sleep debt represents when you are using more energy, when you’re using more bodily resources than you are replenishing.
But the biggest problem is that your body’s energy bank sort of resets everyday. You can’t accumulate sleep debt over the week, and then try to sleep-in over the weekend to make-up for it. Sure if you’re extremely sleep deprived, then some recovery sleep will feel good - but by that point, your body is trying to repair the damage to your physical and mental health that has already been caused by the lack of sleep.
And here is the trickiest part of all - Your body tries to keep you going so strongly that often times, you won’t even know when you have this sleep debt. Studies show that when people who didn’t sleep well for even one night were asked how they are feeling the next day, they reported to be feeling just fine - but when their productivity and mood was tracked objectively through the day, it showed that even a single night of irregular sleep impacts your mental health negatively.
So the most important take-away is that you have to balance your energy and sleep debt every day in order to maintain an optimal functioning of your physical and mental health, and the best way to do that is by establishing a regular sleep routine.
Because there is only so much sleep debt that you can tolerate, before it starts to impact your life. And when it comes to sleep debt impacting your mental health, there are three main areas where sleep debt can really cause a havoc on your intentional living practices, and those are: Productivity, Motivation, and Relationships.
So let’s get into how sleep impacts each of these areas of your mental and emotional health.
When it comes to productivity, your sleep impacts your brain’s functioning in two main areas: First is memory - Sleep is critical to give your mind that brain juice - the power for you to learn new information. It helps your brain absorb the new information, then cement the new information in your brain through a process called consolidation, and finally when you have to retrieve the information stored in your brain.
That’s why when students take pride in pulling an all-nighter or staying-up late to study, it doesn’t really help their performance because in order to cement what they learned, and to be able to remember that information during the exam, they really need to have a good quality sleep the night before.
And the second area where sleep power has a huge impact on your productivity is critical thinking, which means being able to think creatively, think outside the box, or apply the information you already know in the real world.
For this critical thinking, you use the front part of your brain - which the most evolved part of your brain. Sort of like a CEO for your body - It controls the thinking and all the high level decision making in your brain. But in order for your brain to take the information you already learned and apply it in these new and creative ways, that’s a very energy-consuming process, and you need a lot of brain power reserves to be able to do that - the energy that’s replenished through sleep.
The second way in which your sleep power shapes your life is through motivation. Remember the REM sleep that I mentioned earlier? What studies have showed us is that during this REM sleep, your brain takes the difficult parts of your day, and it re-processes those emotions when you’re sleep. Your sleep in these moments act almost like an overnight healing therapy.
If you have ever gone to bed after a stressful day, but then woke-up refreshed and motivated to take on the world again, then that right there is a good example of what how powerful your sleep can be in taking the stressful or even traumatic moments from your day, process those emotions and help you find your groundedness again.
Another example of this sort of a motivational reset that you experience during is sleep is if you have ever had an argument with your partner and went to bed angry, only to wake-up in a different mood and found it easier to let go of certain things and patch-up with your partner for the argument from the night before.
That too is a good example of how your brain can process the negative emotions in those deep stages of sleep, to help you recover and give you a new perspective and outlook on things.
And the third area of your life where sleep power has the most significant impact is your relationships. Now in order to understand the link between your sleep and your relationships, you need to understand the impact of the sleep on your emotions regulation.
The reason sleep has such a huge impact on your emotions is because the lack of sleep impacts a particular part of your brain that’s responsible for the negative emotions, especially - irritation, sadness and anger.
When you’re running low on sleep, then your brain isn’t able to keep as much control on your this part of the brain, leaving it to be more active and uninhibited. It is more active, which means you’re more likely to feel irritated or get angry more easily.
You are more like to snap at your partner, friends or family members because you feel more irritated, and the part of your brain that would tell you not to snap at people is not functioning as well as it usually does.
But the trickiest part is that if you have chronic sleep difficulties, then this irritated state of mind starts to become a new normal. If you’re more irritated or on edge for a day or two, it’s easier for you to recognize that, but if it starts to happens more often, then these disrupted emotions become difficult to recognize.
And not only sleep helps you regulate your own emotions, it also improves your abilities to read other people’s emotions, including your partner. When you get good quality sleep that replenishes your brain power, it improves how well you can understand your partner’s emotions and perspectives, especially the non-verbal cues - the unspoken parts of a conversation.
Together these two abilities can help you regulate your emotions, communicate them better, and understand and accommodate others’ emotions and needs better without feeling burdened or overwhelmed.
And these are just a few ways in which your sleep sort of re-calibrates your brain and impacts everything in your life, from your productivity and motivation to your relationships.
It’s a super power that you have been sitting on for all of your life, and now it’s time to channel this emotional energy and this super power to your advantage. By focusing on establishing a healthy sleep routine that can help you get not only a good amount of sleep, but also that good quality of sleep, that’s refreshing and healing.