The Effect of Sleep on Resilience
Resilience is a well sought after quality and we often heard it said that we should learn to build resilience. Many of us have tried to strengthen our resilience by learning special techniques. Sometimes it’s said that life experiences teach us resilience or that certain personality types are more pre-disposed to being resilient. Often successful people are hailed as having admirable resilience. But we don’t hear much at all about the impact that sleep has on enhancing our resilience. Or conversely, how sleep deprivation can severely deplete it.
What does being resilient actually mean
In order to dig a little deeper into this, let’s examine what resilience actually means. A dictionary definition usually summarises it as the ability to bounce back quickly. To me, bouncing back quickly has several components. When we experience an unpleasant event or a set-back it means being able to: control our emotions in the moment; assess the situation accurately; make objective decisions in the immediate aftermath; and be objective when we look back at the event so we can take the learning, detach from the emotion and move on.
And here’s the thing, as research scientist Matthew Walker explains in his book Why We Sleep, scientists are now proving that each of these things are extremely affected by our sleep or lack of it. Not just by our natural temperament or how much we have learned from bitter experience but simply, did we get enough sleep the night before the event and will we get enough sleep in the nights following.
Let me explain each of these steps in more detail.
Step 1 – Controlling your emotions
When an event happens, we are often filled with emotions. We can feel them flooding in. Anger, frustration, sadness, disbelief. The more primitive parts of our brain responding quickly with raw feelings to try and steer our immediate reactions. But thankfully, our more highly evolved cognitive parts of the brain fires in response to receive, sift and balance the data coming in and allow us a more measured and analytical response. Unless that is, we haven’t slept well the night before (or cumulatively lost sleep over several nights). In this situation, we experience a kind of disconnect between these two parts of the brain; our cognitive thinking not quite being able to control our emotions as it should. Leaving us open to experience mood swings of high emotion back and forth from excitement to sadness or anger and back again.
Step 2 – Objective decision making
Of course, if we are in this situation, we often fail to realise this, and this leads us to the second and third points. We are unable to assess the situation accurately and we start to decision make in the moment based on our emotions rather than our rational thinking. Studies have showed two key things happen when we don’t get enough sleep. We are more likely to view situations with a negative lens and effective decision making is detrimentally impacted. Also, in laboratory studies, participants found it harder to register when a solution wasn’t working and so they would not change course. Let’s take a practical example of how this plays out. Your colleague says something terse to you. As you are tired, instead of thinking objectively that she is probably just having a bad day herself, you are immediately vulnerable to your emotions and negative thoughts and start to feel angry. She’s being rude. She doesn’t like you. You knew she had a problem with you and now this proves it. You quickly decide to be a bit terse back. She reacts accordingly. Your brain at this point perhaps not detecting this wasn’t the best course of action, you plough on, until a very tense exchange ensues leaving you both feeling hurt and awkward.
Step 3 – Learning and moving on
This leads to the final point. As you walk away from the exchange you immediately feel a new flood of emotions, which are also unable to be checked properly by your rational brain, of course, and, as you are now susceptible to mood swings, the anger is quickly replaced by remorse and sadness. Why did you do that? Now it’s going to be weird when you next have to interact. You mull over this event all day, at the mercy of your feelings and mood swings.
That night you go to sleep and your brain gets busily to work. It has a very clever solution to the risk of accumulation of too much “emotional baggage”. The brain waves of sleep act as a tonic, bathing the memory stored in your short-term memory banks, carefully extracting some of the emotional memory attached, leaving more of the facts of the event before carefully filing in your long-term memory. Remember when your parents used to say, “you’ll feel better in the morning”? It’s not just the passage of time, scientists now think, but the processes during sleep that literally allow us to detach the bulk of the emotion so that we can wake with a more objective recollection. You wake up with renewed clarity, perspective and rational decision making ability and smile to yourself. What was all that about yesterday? I will just go into the office and find my colleague and tell her I was having a bad day yesterday and apologise. I’m sure she’ll feel the same and we can smooth it over. Unless that is, we cut short our sleep (or are unable to sleep). In this case sadly, the brain’s processes do not get time to complete, risking the retention of too much emotion and an inability to recollect objectively. In this scenario it’s easy to see how you could wake up still churning, still driven by emotion and go into work ready to relive the whole scenario again.
Resilience. Such an important day-to-day life skill and one we often hear we need to gain more of. And we have in our gift a completely free and easy technique for raising our resilience every single day. A good night’s sleep. And in case you’re wondering how much sleep is enough. It’s 7-9 hours. Every single night. Not just on the weekend. And now you know why.
A bit about Nicky
Nicky is a qualified adult sleep coach, a former sufferer of insomnia and a Mum of three. Having discovered how life-changing getting great sleep could be she is on a mission to share the secrets to sleep success with you.
She knows that you don’t just want more bland advice or sleep hygiene tips. You want a sustainable and natural approach to consistently great sleep which fits in with your busy life and gives you the energy and creativity to achieve your goals in less time.
HWBInspiration co-founders, Su & Claire, are grateful to our Associate HWBI Ninjas for sharing their knowledge, skill and insights.