The Importance of Sleep for Emotional Health, Brain and Body

Linda Graham, MFT examines ways that adequate sleep serves your emotional and physical health; the brain, nervous system, heart, mood and stress levels.  She offers ways to set up the conditions for replenishing sleep.

I’ve often written about resilience in the doing mode – bouncing back from adversity, coping with difficulties skillfully, persevering toward a goal. But we also need the essential replenishment of something that’s more in a being mode – a good night’s sleep, night after night.

Sleep is when the brain consolidates the learning we’ve done through the day into working memory so that we can access it later. Not enough sleep, our overworked neurons become uncoordinated and have difficulties in recalling new information the next day.

Sleep is when the brain does its housekeeping – cleaning out damaged or atrophied neurons, making room for the new neurons we generate from exercise, from learning, from connecting with other human beings.

Sleep resets the nervous system, returning our body-brain to a natural equilibrium (that can be disrupted by stress and over-doing during the day or worry in the middle of the night).

Sleep fosters health in our physical heart and other major organs like our lungs and kidneys. Sleep impacts the function of our immune system, our sensitivity to pain, our reaction times, our mood.

8 full hours of sleep has been the folk wisdom forever. 8 full hours is what modern researchers are discovering is necessary for the brain to perform its integrating-restorative functions.

I’ve been known to cut corners, trying to get by on 5-6 hours of sleep when a big deadline is looming. But I also know my focus and energy levels are compromised when I do cut those corners, especially night after night. Researchers have found that 97.5% of the population need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep a night yet, on the average, Americans get 6.5 hours of sleep per night. (And probably believe we are in the 2.5% that can get away with that.) Further studies show that high achievers sleep significantly more than the average American.

How do you create the conditions for healthy, replenishing sleep?

  • Manage stress levels:  We can work diligently and skillfully to change the external conditions that cause stress. We still have to regulate the flow of the stress hormone cortisol in our body.  During the day: affectionate breathing, hand on the heart, self-compassion breaks, body scan with gratitude, hugs, equanimity for two, feeling already safe, already filled, already loved – to release the oxytocin that will immediately and directly antidote the cortisol.
  • A gratitude practice (count your blessings instead of sheep) at night:  Re-focus the attention of the mind from the rumination and obsessive worry that is the downside of the creative free-association of the brain’s default network to the felt sense of a positive emotion that will antidote the negativity bias of the brain and re-open our thinking to a more optimistic perspective. (You may not fall asleep again right away, but at least you won’t be suffering.
  • Turn off your electronic and digital devices – computers, phones, TVs – 30-60 minutes before you go to bed.  The low-energy blue light emitted by these devices stimulates the neurotransmitters in our brains that make us more alert and suppress other chemicals like melatonin that help us fall asleep.

Read a good book, take a warm bath, cuddle with your partner or pet instead. Go to bed early enough – a full 8 hours before you have to get up in the morning- and experience the benefits of feeling replenished with energy and resources to re-engage your life with resilience and joy.