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How we speak about sleep matters!

As wellness professionals, need to change the conversation we’re having around sleep because we can unknowingly harm those who need our help the most.

I watched a video recently that my sleep-researcher hero Matthew Walker was featured in, that was titled Can Sleep Deprivation Kill you? It’s a 2 minute except of a longer interview that details all the ways sleep deprivation can harm you.

I see videos, posts, graphics depicting the harms of sleep deprivation all over the internet.

While educating the public about the importance of prioritizing sleep is of the utmost importance, and I am a big fan of all Walkers research, I believe we need a more nuanced and mindful approach to how we are talking about sleep in the public sphere.

How I see it, there’s two general types of people not getting enough sleep:

1. Those who don’t give themselves the opportunity to get enough sleep, due to poor sleep habits, not prioritizing sleep, work or family demands, etc. These people could sleep if they gave themselves a chance by getting into bed and allowing themselves to rest.

2. Those who are struggling to sleep, and even if they give themselves the best opportunity to sleep, still struggle with falling asleep or falling back asleep after waking up during the night.

For our first group of people, education about the harmful effects of sleep education may be helpful and motivating in prioritizing sleep. If you know the stats around how one night of 6 hours or less of sleep effects your immune system or your testosterone or the build up of plaque in your brain, it might motivate you to not watch that extra Netflix episode.

However, for our second group of sleepers, this information can actually be harmful.

Here’s a few reasons why:

- Someone struggling to fall asleep generally deals with stressful ‘bedtime thoughts’ and worry about falling asleep, how they’re going to feel the next day etc. but now they can add increased risk for Alzheimer’s, cardiac issues, weight gain etc to the list. It’s fuel for the bedtime thoughts worry list.

- The main contributing factors for insomnia (the most common sleep disorder) are psychological: stress, anxiety and worry. So adding information about the negative effects of sleep deprivation can increase stress, anxiety and worry, thereby creating a vicious cycle of poor sleep.

- People who are struggling with sleep difficulties tend to feel overwhelmed already with information about how to improve their sleep and generally have already tried all the commonly known sleep hygiene habits with minimal success. Also, chronic sleep difficulties effect our mental and emotional processing abilities, so these folks already have limited capacity to process emotional and cognitive information.

I’d like to see more people in our field of wellness, improve our conversation around sleep, to include a more nuanced dialogue about how to address sleep issues.

I would like to see people make recommendations for those struggling with sleep issues to go see a professional.

I would like to see experts, when sharing about the harm of sleep deprivation, include a caveat for those with chronic insomnia, saying perhaps this isn’t the most useful information for you, and that you would be better served booking an appointment with your doctor to discuss options.

Let’s up-level our conversations around sleep!

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