Good Night, Insomnia! Part 2. Negative sleep thoughts.June 21 , 2012

“Oh my God, I’ve been in bed most of the night and haven’t even slept 3 hours.  I’m going to be a ZOMBIE!”

“Oh no, I’m awake again.  I’m going bomb that presentation tomorrow.”

“Here we go again.  Awake at 3am.  I’m going to feel exhausted and cranky ALL DAY.”

These are just a few examples of what can go on in my head when I have trouble sleeping.  Calming thoughts that help ease me back to sleep, right?  HA!

While everyone has trouble sleeping sometimes, insomniacs make it SO much worse by stressing about not sleeping enough.  This can turn a natural middle-of-the-night wake-up into a stress-filled night of minimal sleep.

These over-the-top pessimistic thoughts hold a lot of sway in our tired middle-of-the-night brains.  But they are often wrong.  Here’s some of the science behind insomnia to help you dispute these negative thoughts and replace them with facts that can help you get back to sleep.

You CAN maintain performance on just 5.5 hours
We hear “People need 8 hours of sleep!” all the time in the media.  But the research tells a very different story.  Studies from many top sleep researchers show that performance on alertness, memory and problem-solving tasks can be maintained for extended period of time with about 70% of normal sleep (or about 5.5 hours).  In two of these studies, college students were restricted to 5.5 hours of sleep for multiple months and there were “no detrimental effects on cognitive, behavioral or physiological functioning.”

Did I FEEL at my best when I was at the height of my insomnia earlier this year?  Heck, no.  I was crankier and less patient and I got distracted more easily.  But looking back objectively at those sleep-deficient months, I realized I had one of the most productive periods of my life.  I built a new collaboration, rocked presentations in front of large groups, threw a big fundraiser, and maintained a full coaching schedule.

If you’ve been struggling with insomnia and concerns about your productivity, take some time to look objectively at what you have accomplished.  You may be surprised.  Make note of your progress on projects and bring those top of mind when you panic that a lack of sleep will ruin your performance tomorrow.

You are getting more sleep than you think
A large study in the Stanford sleep lab showed that insomniacs consistently overestimate the time it took them to fall asleep by 30 minutes and underestimate their total sleep time by a full hour.   Here’s the deal, light phases of sleep are hard to differentiate from being awake and your perceptions of time get skewed in a sleepy state.

So give yourself the benefit of the doubt when evaluating how much sleep you are really getting.

And if you are a data junkie like me and really want to know more about your sleep, you can buy a fun little tool called the ZEO which will monitor what sleep stage you are in.  Though be prepared to get the occasional chuckle from your bedmate when you are wearing the ultra-cool headstrap.

“I know why you are here, ZEO”

The data easily transfers to your computer so you can analyze how your sleep patterns compare to the average for your age group.  This gives you a much better read-out on your total sleep and tells you how many minutes you were in deep and REM sleep.

By using the ZEO for a couple months, I was able to see that even when I was only sleeping 5 hours, I was getting more than the average amount of deep sleep and nearly as much REM sleep as my age cohort.   These are the two most important and restorative stages of sleep.  Seeing this data did wonders for me in terms of lessening my worries about sleep.

Replace those negative thoughts with more positive ones
I opened this post with some of the thoughts that swirl around in my head when I can’t sleep.  It’s important to do your own self-study.  What are you saying to yourself when you can’t sleep? (see post about this here)

If you are in the midst of a bout of sleep troubles, here is your assignment for this week:  Record those thoughts in a journal and then in the light of day, use the research above to argue against them.  Or find less anxiety-producing interpretations of the same facts.  Here are some examples:

“I always fall back to sleep sooner or later.”
“I need less sleep than I thought.”
“My sleep is getting better and better.”
“My sleep will be improving as I implement more of these techniques.”
“If I get my core sleep, I’ll be able to function fine during the day.”

Yes.  Getting less than 8 hours of sleep will likely leave you sleepier and less happy at times during the day.  But you are probably getting more sleep than you think and those worries about your productivity are likely overblown.  Take the time to listen in to your negative thoughts and provide some less-stressful alternatives!

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach

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