It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the Committee of Sleep has worked on it.
So wrote John Steinbeck in his 1954 novel Sweet Thursday.
Steinbeck was drawing on common knowledge. Back in the 1950’s there was little scientific research into sleep. Of course we don’t need science to tell us that everything feels easier after a good night’s sleep. It’s a common human experience. It’s just that these days we understand exactly what happens on a physical, emotional and cognitive level when we go short on Zzzs. As a result we now have effective, science-based treatments for insomnia.
It’s an uncomfortable truth that lack of sleep on a regular basis messes with your life – your whole life, not just your health but your relationships, your work performance, your mood and self-esteem. And Steinbeck hit the nail on the head – good sleep enhances your ability to make clear judgments. And yet it’s estimated that 10% of the population – across the globe – suffers from medically defined insomnia and a greater number experience sleeping difficulties on a regular basis.
So you’re definitely not alone if you are one of the 10% or more. Yet in the middle of the night it’s easy to feel that you’re the only one awake and worried into the small hours. (That’s an example of distorted night time thinking, characteristic of poor sleep).
The part of my work that I especially love, and see as really important, is to offer reassurance to poor sleepers and an alternative view. There’s nothing “wrong” with you – the exhaustion, forgetfulness, procrastination, irritability that you’re noticing, horrible though they are, are common symptoms of sleep deprivation. These can all be fixed by good sleep. But before I move on to the fix, I’d like to look at one particularly unpleasant sign of sleep deprivation – something that many of my clients refer to as brain fog.
When you’re a high achiever, with high expectations of yourself, let alone others, brain fog can be the most unsettling of symptoms. After all, you rely upon your mental processing power. You’ve got where you are due to your ability to think clearly, summon a cogent argument, be a skillful negotiator and have key information at your fingertips.
Brain fog is embarrassing. You’re in a meeting and the words just won’t come. In the middle of a detailed discussion you suddenly feel as if you’ve lost the thread. You’re trying to brief a colleague but you can’t remember the details. You know you need to make a decision but you find yourself flip-flopping with indecision.
One client, a successful business woman, told me
I’m so tired I don’t even know what I’m saying.
Another, a lawyer who needed to think on his feet during difficult client negotiations, said
I feel as if my brain’s stopped functioning. The words just won’t come out.
So what’s happening here and how do you combat brain fog?
In the 1800’s people believed that when we slept, the brain switched off (now, wouldn’t that be nice!) It was like a shop putting up its shutters or the power down of a computer. These days, thanks to numerous sleep studies, we know differently. We know that sleep is essential for optimal physiological functioning. Good sleep supports major body systems including the immune and cardio-vascular systems as well as mood and cognitive function.
This brings us back to brain fog – sleep is particularly important for learning and memory. During sleep, the brain organises and stores new information. The learning that you’ve acquired during the day is consolidated by sleep. Driven by the rhythmic oscillations of slow wave sleep, like waves gently washing the shore, it’s moved from one area of the brain to another, from short term into long term storage. This maintains a healthy working memory, so you can readily recall information and avoid those embarrassing brain-fog moments.
This consolidation process however is easily upset. Studies indicate that it can be disrupted by just one night of sleep deprivation. No wonder that when you don’t get sufficient Zzzs you find it hard to think on your feet, see the wood for the trees or trust in your judgement.
Everyone accepts that they’ll have the odd bad night. I know myself that some days my energy just isn’t right for a tricky conversation or thinking through a challenging problem. These days are, thankfully, rare but when they happen, I try to cut myself some slack. I might reschedule a call if I can or make sure I get the more challenging tasks done first thing. But of course you can’t do that very often. And when you’re struggling everyday to keep afloat then you may turn to caffeine to get you through, which in turn will cause it’s own problems. Needing a few espressos before you can get your brain into gear is a sign of lack of sleep. Caffeine also makes you edgy during the day and wired at night.
Brain fog will also undermine your confidence. You may think that you’re getting “too old” for the game or that somehow you’re losing your abilities.
You might start to blame yourself, wondering what on earth is “wrong” with you? I’ve seen this happen to highly competent business leaders. They’re used to working things out for themselves. One told me how struggling to sleep at night, she says to herself:
This is ridiculous! Sleep is supposed to be a natural thing so why can’t I do it?
You can imagine where that line of thinking takes her – more frustration, more alert, no sleep…
In this way brain fog leads to other layers of sleep related difficulties – anxiety, stress and depression, low mood and loss of self-esteem, high blood pressure and other health impacts. They all become intertwined, feeding off each other like parasitic plants growing over a solid oak tree.
By now I’m sure you’re saying “ Enough! This is me. I get the misery – where’s my solution?” The solution is simple – fix your sleep. Yet when it comes to sleep, simple doesn’t always mean easy. Modern lives have made sleep complicated.
Yes, sleep is a natural process and it should be simple.
The body is designed to be a superb sleep machine – but like any piece of kit, it needs proper maintenance and for you to push the right buttons.
These days we live in a world where sleep has been sidelined. It’s been relegated, no longer central to each and every day’s natural rhythms and routines. We’ve neglected to maintain the machine and think we can ignore the manual. This all started with the invention of electricity when suddenly we could start work before day break and continue late into the night. We can stay up all night now!
Fixing your sleep is about going back to basics, reinstating the rhythms and routines that enable the body to do what it wants naturally to do. I’m not suggesting you go back to living a pre-industrial revolution life. You can find modern day equivalents to prioritise sleep and re-establish its natural cues.
You can rebuild a positive sleep mindset where you look forward to restful slumber each night, switching your brain off so you truly do have sweet dreams.
Are you ready to reinstate sleep in it’s rightful place, as an essential pillar of your health, wellbeing and performance? If you’re not yet convinced, what’s holding you back?
It may be that you’ve already Googled “sleep problems” and tried a few things. They didn’t work and left you disillusioned.
Or perhaps you know you need to tackle your sleep but for some reason or other you just don’t get around to taking action.
Or maybe you believe that you’re one of those people who just doesn’t sleep well (in which case you might find it helpful to read some of my other posts about how labeling yourself as a “bad sleeper” keeps you unnecessarily stuck).
Or you might be asking yourself “What else could there possibly be that I don’t already know?”
In recent years, sleep therapy has advanced in leaps and bounds. Reducing caffeine, having an evening wind down and avoiding screens at night – the type of advice you’re most likely to come across – can have an impact at the margins. But many people need a more comprehensive approach. Thanks to numerous clinical trials, we have robust science-based interventions that cover all the necessary elements – the cognitive and behavioural habits and patterns that lead to consistent sound sleep. These approaches are embedded in my My Sleep Well Programmes, taking you from sleep-deprived to sleep-confident in five weeks without, of course, the need for pills or potions.