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Sleep on it: how sleep helps build resilience

Mindfulness doesn't just happen in the head, it's a whole body experience. In this article, Assoc Prof Marcus O'Donnell discusses sleep and resilience
Woman asleep
© Deakin University
Sleep is the cornerstone of health. It allows us to regenerate both physically and mentally, yet most of us don’t get nearly enough of it.
According to leading neuroscientist and ‘sleep expert’ Professor Matthew Walker, we’re experiencing a ‘catastrophic global sleep epidemic’.
Walker also says that ‘human beings are the only species that deliberately deprive themselves of sleep for no apparent gain … Many people walk through their lives in an underslept state, not realising it.’

Why is sleep so important?

Walker runs one of the world’s leading sleep labs at the University of California, Berkeley and, in a recent book, explores the transformative power of sleep to change our lives.
Among his findings, Walker summarises what we now know about sleep, including:
  • Everyone needs seven to eight hours of sleep a night. Anything less will have a detrimental effect on our health. It’s a myth that some people can maintain their health with less than this.
  • Lack of sleep has a cumulative effect on our health, and you can’t undo the damage by grabbing a few extra hours on the weekend. Those who regularly miss sleep are at a much higher risk of diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
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    We all go through a pattern of five different phases in our sleep and we need plenty of time to get enough of each. Each sleep phase has different effects on our brains whether that be transferring information from short-term memory to long-term, processing unusual or difficult experiences, or consolidating learning.
  • Although many people believe that alcohol helps them sleep, it actually does more harm than good. Alcohol in the evening fragments a person’s sleep and, more critically, it tends to repress REM – or dream – sleep. Dream sleep is one of the key ways that our minds process emotions and solve problems while we’re asleep.

What does sleep mean for building resilience?

Two key takeaways from Walker’s research that have a direct impact on resilience are:
  • Good sleep is essential for learning – we need sleep before learning new things and then afterwards since our brains continue to process what we’ve learnt for several nights.
  • Sleep is essential for emotional regulation – brain scans of sleep-deprived people show an increase of activity in regions of the brain that generate reactivity and impulse, and a decrease in activity in regions that control rational decision making. This is why a sleep-deprived person often swings between emotional extremes.
So sleep is essential for our long-term physical resilience against disease as well as our everyday resilience. It enables us to learn and process our learning and enables us to find that balance between emotional reaction and careful decision making.
For more information about improving your sleeping, see these tips and resources from the US National Sleep Foundation.

Your task

Are you a good sleeper? What are the things that get in the way of sleep for you? Do you put off going to bed? Do you try to cram in too much at the end of the day?
In the comments, share your tips for getting a good sleep and the things that get in the way of getting enough sleep.
© Deakin University
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