Disrupted sleep cycles or sleep deprivation can cause frequent problems with daily levels of physical, mental and behavioral functioning, especially when the state of the world isn't so cookie-cutter anymore.
Stress is one of the root causes of insufficient or non-restorative sleep, along with anxiety or worry, according to Kimberly Fenn, an associate professor of psychology at Michigan State.
People are experiencing higher levels of stress than normal. Fenn said that some parts of that may be due to the pandemic, while other parts may be due to familial problems or the fact that there are less outlets while stuck in the house.
Stress can aggravate insomnia symptoms, causing individuals to stay in lighter stages of sleep. There are two types of insomnia: sleep onset — difficulty falling asleep — and sleep maintenance — waking up multiple times throughout the night or having difficulty staying asleep.
Stress also has an effect on cardiovascular function both during waking and sleeping — high stress equals higher heart rate with less variability.
Fenn said individuals must target the stress head on in order to feel its strong downstream benefits and recommends they engage in activities like exercise or meditation to relax their minds, reduce deep thoughts and ultimately help initiate sleep.
While there is no one simple answer to why sleep is so important, it's a huge influencer on the strength of our immune system. In an MSU Today article, Fenn made note that the body becomes unable to fight off viral infections like COVID-19 when we don't get adequate sleep.
Just because people lack the same early morning wake-up calls to get to the office or the classroom as before doesn't mean they should skip out on getting those recommended hours of sleep every night.
How much sleep should you get?
According to an expert answer from the Mayo Clinic, the number of hours of sleep one should be getting every night differs by their age, as well as whether or not they are pregnant, aging, have prior sleep deprivation or overall poor sleep quality:
- Newborns: 14-17 hours
- 12 months old: About 10 hours at night, 4 hours of naps
- 2 years old: About 11-12 hours at night, 1-2 hours of naps
- 3 to 5 years old: 10-13 hours
- 6-13 years old: 9-11 hours
- 14-17 years old: 8-10 hours
- Adults: 7 to 9 hours
The stages of sleep that our bodies go through every night are divided into two, according to Michigan Medicine's website: Non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM).
NREM sleep has three substages and takes up the first two hours you are asleep. Adults spend the most time in this stage.
Stage N1 occurs right after you fall asleep and is usually very short, no more than 10 minutes. It involves light sleep and is something you can easily be awakened from.
Stage N2 lasts roughly 30 to 60 minutes and is when your muscles become more relaxed. You may also begin to experience slow-wave, or delta, brain activity.
Stage N3 is deeper than the other two stages, but not as deep as REM sleep. It lasts roughly 20 to 40 minutes and may involve body movements like shifting or twitching. Your slow-wave brain activity increases as well and it becomes extremely hard to wake someone up.
REM sleep is the deepest stage of sleep. Your eyelids and eyes flutter and your breathing becomes irregular — it's normal to have short episodes when breathing stops (i.e., apnea).
The sleep cycle repeats three to four times every night.
You do most of your dreaming in REM sleep; however, your muscles are paralyzed so you don't have the ability to act out.
"Dreams are a unique state of consciousness in which individuals experience vivid perpetual images, emotions, and other sensory content," Fenn said. "Dreams that occur during REM sleep tend to be highly emotional and often bizarre ... due to the neural function during (that time)."
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Fenn referenced the area of the brain called the amygdala that responds to emotional — particularly fearful — stimuli and is highly active during REM dreams.
"These are the dreams where anything can happen. There's no clear, linear narrative," she said.
Fenn also said that it's normal to have vivid dreams in this stage, especially during stress disrupted cycles.
"The reason that dreams are rarely remembered is, one, in order for you to remember a dream you need to wake up in the middle of it," she said. "(Two), when you initially wake up from sleep, you're in ... a different cognitive state, and if you don't immediately write down your dream or immediately try to rehearse it, the memories from the dream will be lost."
Unfortunately, there is no magical spell you can cast to reform your sleep patterns. It takes a lot of time and routine effort and change.
Fenn provided several basic recommendations for improving your general sleep hygiene that many people often overlook:
- Temperature — your room should be no more than 67 degrees and no less than 60 degrees Fahrenheit during the night.
- Comfort — pay attention to what you wear to bed, the mattress you sleep on and your choice of covers, whether thin sheets or thick blankets. If any of these cause pain or irritation, it will lead to more nightly arousals.
- Silence — environmental noise can obstruct sleep. For those who live in cities, or even college students who live in residence halls or apartment complexes, where it seems almost impossible to find an ounce of peace, try ear plugs or a white noise machine.
- Dark — light is the body's primary wake-up cue. For those who live where there's lots of light due to uncontrollable factors, try a sleep mask.
- Preparation — this is a broad category, but we tend to engage in a lot of behaviors that disrupt our sleep. Try to avoid drugs or alcohol for at least 4-6 hours before sleep and work or other stress-inducing activities for at least two hours before bed. Also, stay off of electronic devices, because blue light suppresses melatonin more than regular light.
- Consistency — make a sleep schedule by utilizing alarms for when to go to bed and when to wake up, that way it's at the same time every day. In times like right now, where you may not have strict plans, it may be easy to stay up very late one night and go to bed earlier the next.
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