Sleep is necessary for life. It is a naturally occurring phenomenon that serves to heal the mind and body and rejuvenate the resources needed for normal daily functioning. For most of us, sleep is the easiest and most natural form of relaxation around. To an insomniac, however, sleep can seem like the holy grail. The National Sleep Institute found that over 35 percent of workers and 55 percent of managers report problems falling or staying asleep. Unfortunately, stress and insomnia seem to be bosom buddies.
No single theory on the amount of sleep our bodies actually need has ever gained complete acceptance among the experts. Most agree, however, that sleep deprivation is epidemic in Western society, especially since high-quality sleep (deep, uninterrupted, and untroubled) is elusive for many. Some sleep researchers go so far as to say that if you have to set an alarm to wake up, you are suffering some degree of sleep deprivation. If this is in fact the case, we are starting every day with depleted resources for coping. No wonder we experience so many minor everyday hassles as stressors!
So how can we take better advantage of sleep, our potential ally? First, we must determine how much sleep our bodies need. This differs substantially from one individual to another. We’d all be thrilled to say we could function perfectly on five hours per night, but in reality, only a tiny percentage of the population is truly able to do that. You must be totally honest in your assessment of your sleep needs.
If you are unsure just what your actual needs are, go to sleep at a ”reasonable hour” (9 P.M.–11 P.M.), do not set an alarm, and see how long you sleep. The tricky part of this is that in order to get a true reading, you will need to do it continuously for at least two weeks. The problem with gauging it by how long you sleep on weekends is that most of us are sleeping longer than normal in an attempt to make up for a week-long deficit.
Once you know how much sleep you need, make a conscious effort to get that much whenever you can. A good goal is four to five times per week. This may mean that you will have to start going to bed earlier. Another possible option is to adjust your work hours so you can sleep a little longer. A thirty-something colleague of mine took a four-month sabbatical a couple of years ago and was so struck by how much better she felt and functioned when she was able to get her required 8.5 hours of sleep per night that when she returned to work, she put herself and her entire staff on a flexible schedule where each one of them could choose their own arrival time and flex the rest of their hours to meet at least an eight-hour day. She tells me it’s been very successful and other managers in her firm are now trying it.
Insomnia (inability to fall asleep or stay asleep), although not truly life-threatening, is not a trivial matter to the millions who suffer from it. However, a great deal of the problem is one of mental compounding, much like sexual impotence. Let’s look at an example. Elaine goes to bed late one night after staying up until 2 A.M. preparing for an important customer meeting the next day. Although she’s tired and needs all the sleep she can still get, she lies there the rest of the night, tossing fretfully, unable to clear her mind of all the preparatory chatter. The next night she is exhausted and goes to bed early, but when she is not immediately able to fall asleep, she begins to worry: “I’ve just got to get some sleep tonight; I barely made it through today.” But another night goes by with little to no sleep. The third night the same thing occurs. Now Elaine is really getting worried and begins to think she has a serious problem, labels it insomnia, and on it goes.