Bring Up Sleep – How can I increase my overall well-being

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Today sitting in front of my laptop writing to you, I can think of only one thing, sleep. It’s been on my mind for the mere reason that over the last few weeks I’ve had bouts of insomnia. When people say things like “We don’t truly appreciate what we have until it’s gone”, for insomnia, you can really take a moment to acknowledge how accurate this is. Every day we sleep, as we should. If this does not apply to you, I’m compelling you to reconsider your life habits. Since sleeping happens on a regular basis, we tend to disregard giving it the particular attention it deserves. For as far as I can remember, I’ve always loved sleeping, and thus I’ve continuously pursued a good night’s sleep of at least  8 hours. However, generally, I need well over 8 hours of sleep to be completely refreshed. Personal factors are at play and it’s important to consider individual differences. We have to be open to listen and adapt to what our bodies are trying to tell us.

What happens during sleep is a question that many scientists have dedicated most of their lives trying to answer. For the longest time, research was fruitless. Scientists had barely any clues as to its function, but everyone had at least a hypothesis as to its purpose. Researchers, despite their visible lack of results on the nature of sleep, knew that it was at the very least essential for our survival. We didn’t have to stretch our thinking to its limit to accept this. Simply looking at data, people who tended to neglect their sleep, aged faster than those who pursued a good night’s sleep on a regular basis. Also, you may already be aware that being completely sleep deprived for more than a couple of days may lead to the development of psychological disturbances like paranoia and hallucinations. In comparison, good sleepers may seem to benefit from more resilient metabolisms which provides a lower risk for obesity, cardiovascular diseases, anxiety, depression and much more.

Knowing about its importance is still not sufficient to have everyone adjusting their sleeping habits. Many of us have reasons supporting our systematic neglect against fulfilling the required amount of shut-eye hours. Those reasons could range anywhere from having young children to the affliction of sleeping disorders. As such, at different moments in our lives, we may notice our sleeping habits beginning to change. In fact, the changes that we undergo are not always conscious. As a baby, for example, we have to sleep for a hefty total of 18 hours. Luckily for us, it doesn’t remain as such for too long, otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to get anything done. Gradually as we age, the sleeping requirements decrease and come to a plateau at 18, to an acceptable 7-9 hours of sleep. It only seems to slightly fall again after 65 years old at a requirement of 7-8hours. 

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Even though we robustly half the amount of sleep needed by the time we reach adulthood, many people won’t follow the guidelines and will find themselves sleep-deprived. One issue could be that we typically find that sleep is a waste of time and that it is solely meant to make us feel rested. However, researchers have been able to come up with theories supporting other importance of sleep. Amongst many theories, four of them seem to stand out: inactivity theory, energy conservation theory, restorative theories and brain plasticity theory. For the moment, none of them are proven to be the unique explanation for the role of sleep. Moreover, researchers are currently agreeing that the answer is more likely to involve many of these theories and not only one. 

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Considering sleep as a survival mechanism, we can easily do a parallel with other survival mechanisms. Anxiety is there as a warning sign to alert us and enable the use of flight or fight when danger is detected. In most situations, we tend to use flight, in other words, we prefer avoidance. If we are able to fight, then the situation is of no corporeal danger. This reasoning supports the implication that anxiety serves to avoid danger. The same reasoning can also be transposed to pain; pain serves to avoid physical harm. Hunger, another survival mechanism, serves to avoid the lack of nutrients. Similarly, all survival mechanisms can be reduced to such basic instruction: to avoid. This is exactly what the theory of inactivity used to justify the need for sleep. The theory states that through many generations, we developed sleep to keep us out of harm’s-way during our most vulnerable time, at least that’s the essence behind this theory. However, some might say that being totally unconscious would render us more vulnerable, not less. 

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Despite having objections to this theory, there still exists some advantages to being almost completely still. By limiting movement, thinking, and perception, you are significantly reducing your individual energy demand and expenditure. In fact, compared to our awakened state, we consume 10% less energy than when asleep. This has led to the energy conservation theory, which some consider a branch of the inactivity theory, and in some cases, the same. However, the explanation is different. Energy conservation means that we need fewer nutrients to survive, which is an essential advantage when living in a world where access to food is limited. It did not only prolong our supply but allowed us to share the supply with more people. However, nowadays we live in a world where food supplies seem endless, and simultaneously people are sleeping less. Meanwhile, researchers are coming to terms with accepting that sleep deprivation, as well as overeating, are both factors contributing to the development of obesity.

Major and noticeable consequences of sleep deprivation are diminished mental acuity, memory and learning capacity. These consequences lead us to ponder over the significance of such findings. One interpretation supports the idea that sleep has restorative functions, conveniently called restorative theories. Interestingly, while looking closely at different restorative mechanisms such as muscle growth, protein synthesis, growth hormone release and tissue repair, we can observe that these seem to happen mostly, and sometimes uniquely, at night. Like adenosine, which accumulates progressively in the body directly following awakening, which seems to promote sleep after a certain concentration has been reached. Every night, an adenosine clean-up is known to take place, restoring the initial level observed in the morning. 

At last, in the last few years, a new theory has been emerging: the brain plasticity theory. This theory seems to hit the nail on the head when trying to explain the influence of sleep on human cognition. Brain plasticity is known to be responsible for brain structural and organizational changes. Intriguingly, brain plasticity seems to be halted, or at least slowed, when sleep duration becomes insufficient. Lower brain plasticity is linked to reduced memory and learning. 

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Sleep is such an important tool that we must come to respect in order to remain healthy, and for a longer period. In sum, it helps us fight off our daily stress, supports our immune system, promotes better cognition and stabilizes our mood. To significantly ameliorate your sleep, we don’t need to sacrifice anything more than a round or two of your favourite game.

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Bring Up State of Panic – What makes us completely lose it

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Waking up in March 2020, while the whole COVID-19 pandemic was unravelling, was no cup of tea. I was foolishly thinking at first that this pandemic wouldn’t change much in our daily lives. After a couple months, I got hit really hard by the observation that things couldn’t be further from the normal we used to know. I was forced to realize that this situation would remain so for a very long time. Given that I had to plan my wedding for summer 2021 and manage a website by myself which got launched no earlier than January 2020, I found this situation considerably troublesome. I won’t hide that this ordeal was a huge anxiety trigger for me. My biggest concern was especially the difficulty getting food. Before the pandemic started, I usually proceeded to order my groceries online, but now it was simply impossible to find an available delivery slot. My fiancée and I came to realize that we had no other choice than to walk down to the grocery store ourselves. 

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Yet our troubles were still far from over. Before we could even see the entrance of the grocery store, we were forced to notice the interminable lineup. I’ve heard that Montréal got hit pretty hard on that front compared to other regions in Quebec, and from what I experienced, I couldn’t agree more. The lineups were often so long that it would typically take us, my fiancé and I, well over an hour to simply get into the store. At the entrance, we were informed that only one of us could enter. So naturally I went in. I only started picking up the grocery to discover suddenly that most essentials were out of stock. Think about flour, sugar, eggs, canned foods, toilet papers and more. This was all so far out of my already established habits that it was sufficient enough to trigger an unbearable anxiety episode. It got so bad, at one point, that I had totally given up on even contemplating being productive. Watching Rom-Coms was my main distraction and was definitely what kept me going day after day. Months into the pandemic, with the help of my already busy fiancé, I decided to kick myself in the rear and do something about it.

The change of mindset was accompanied by summer and its relaxed restrictions. The possibility to see friends and family was more than welcome. Altogether, it was sufficient to have me overcome the anxiety which made me go through somewhat resembling more of a normal life. With perspective, I can say that my anxiety had manifested itself through avoidance and immobility, often referred as Freeze when we talk about this topic. There are, nonetheless, other possible reactions when faced with this same situation. The reactions can be so different that if we compare two of them, they may look completely contradictory. For example, some may become slobs, not doing much really, and some might develop a full-blown panic, hoarding everything on their paths. From a narrow point of view, we may interpret the latter reaction as selfish; however selfishness is not the driver behind this behaviour, fear is.

I feel confident enough to state that most of us have never experienced anything similar to this before. The closest thing that we may have experienced are natural disasters, accidents and attacks. All of those are very localized and in all of those situations we might expect help from outsiders. In the case of this pandemic, everyone was affected. We could only seek help from within us. A lot of people were quick to jump to the most horrific conclusion. Without toilet paper, what would we do? People got so afraid of missing essentials that they hoarded as much as was possible creating a massive shortage in grocery. This was perceived to be enough to validate their actions when in fact it was just the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, this shortage may have been avoided if people kept their buying habits unchanged and not going full rampage mode on the grocery aisles. 

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When we learn to understand the elements that contribute to the development of anxiety, we are in a better standing to act in a more moderate way. A way that doesn’t give in to a state of panic, or even fear for that matter. Truly enough, years ago, I thought that anxiety merely originated from being overwhelmed for a very long time. It was only from one of my university courses that I discovered that anxiety was truly more complex than this. I found out that much like pain, anxiety is an adaptive response that is meant to protect us. It was so finely tuned to detect potential threat, that even now in the absence of significant threat to our life, it still fires up. After much research on the topic, experts came to determine very specific factors that can trigger anxiety, which they summed to the term “NUTS”. NUTS is an acronym for Novelty, Unpredictability, Threat to ego and finally Sense of control. Typically, the more of these elements are present in a situation, the more anxiogenic (causing anxiety) this situation is said to be.

Let’s use this current pandemic as an example to illustrate these elements. The novelty aspect speaks for itself. We have never encountered anything even slightly similar in our life. The pandemic was the result of an exposure to a new strain of coronaviruses (Sars-Cov-2) that, even though was not very deadly, was efficiently spreading. When we came across this virus last spring, we knew barely anything about it. This brings me to the second aspect, unpredictability. We certainly didn’t know what the proper protocol was to apply when dealing with this, nor did we know how long this pandemic would last. We clearly didn’t know if we were in contact with it or not, viruses are invisible to eye scrutiny and this particular virus could even be spread by asymptomatic people. Also unknown was what our immune reaction would be if or when we came in contact with it. This last unpredictability was also appealing to the third aspect of anxiety, threat to ego (self). At last we have the sense of control aspect of anxiety which in this case is not very impressive. The only real control we have over the situation is our reaction, which we don’t have much control over to begin with.

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With all that said, it’s not surprising that the anxiety triggered may have been intense for many of us. Sometime so intense that it would have translated into fear in some and panic in others. Panic is often accompanied with emotionally compromised decisions that are taken in the spur of the moment and wouldn’t be repeated in normal circumstances. This brings me back to the toilet paper hoarding problem I’ve mentioned earlier. This behaviour is not very popular in our everyday life, but in times of panic, it is widely common. People momentarily stop thinking about the wellbeing of others and primarily think about theirs. Considering that when anxious people are easy to jump to the worst-case possible scenario, rumours about possible toilet paper shortage is enough to instigate fear in people’s mind and react accordingly. Hoarding also proves to be a way for people to gain a sense of control over the situation.

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In a couple of months, we will be marking our first year into this pandemic. Things have now begun to feel like a new reality. We still would prefer our life to go back to normal, but this new everyday existence has now become more bearable. Without the common state of panic that many experienced early on, people have currently resumed to think about the wellbeing of others. We can again observe acts of generosity and compassion to others. We have come a long way and, as long as we remember to look for the components of anxiety, we can learn to better cope with what life decides to throw at us. 

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To help you respond better when anxiety starts to hit, you need to wonder about NUTS and ask yourself how you can decrease novelty (e.g. Reading, be careful not to become obsessed, which you exacerbate anxiety), diminish unpredictability (e.g. plans for as many scenarios as you may be able to come up with), lessen the possible threat to ego (e.g. set measure to protect yourself, for COVID-19 pandemic, it could be distancing, wearing protective equipment or even staying home) and finally increasing control (e.g. learn ways to control what you can, could be trying to moderate emotion, maintaining relationship, fixing a work schedule, etc.).

I thank you infinitely for reading this post and if you would like to know more about the mysteries that surround us, please join my subscription list to keep up with my newest content. If you have any questions, please add them to the comment section and I’ll make sure to answer as soon as humanly possible.