Getting enough sleep is a vital part of maintaining physical and mental health. In a recent blog post, we began discussing research reviewed by journalist Holly Pevzner in Psychology Today, which highlighted important facts about sleep. For example, studies show that physical pain hurts more to someone lacking sleep. In addition to physical pain, a lack of sleep can lead to more emotional pain. Not only does lack of sleep lead to irritability, it also leads to dysfunction in regions of the brain related to empathy and perspective taking. It makes it more difficult for someone to understand others around them. Furthermore, Pevzner reviewed research showing that individuals only needed about a minute to recognize someone as sleep deprived and begin to avoid socially interacting with the person. If this continues it can lead to isolation and feelings of depression in those already experiencing distress from sleep issues.
If sleep is so important, what stops people from getting enough of it? Pevzner noted that short-term, or acute insomnia is extremely common. A recent study found that over a four year period 100 percent of people suffered from acute insomnia. Acute insomnia is defined as having difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, at least 3 nights a week, for a period of 2 weeks to less than 3 months.
How can acute insomnia be so common? Pevzner pointed to the commonly known psychological phenomenon known as the “fight or flight response.” Fight or flight is easy to understand if we imagine coming across a bear in the woods. Once our brains identify the bear, our hearts would start to pound, adrenaline would begin to pump, and our critical thinking abilities would shut down. These physiological responses would all be in service of either running away from the bear or fighting off it’s attack. The fight or flight response is useful when coming across a bear. However, it is less useful when our bodies respond to rush hour traffic or financial difficulties, with the fight or flight response, in the same manner as they would an attack from a bear. A rush of adrenaline while lying in bed thinking about financial difficulties isn’t helpful in getting a good night’s sleep.
Luckily, for many people acute insomnia resolves on it’s own. However, Pevzner pointed out that according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, acute insomnia becomes chronic for 20 percent of individuals in the United States. Fortunately, for those with chronic insomnia, there are a variety of sleep strategies and interventions (e.g. cognitive behavior therapy for insomnia or CBT-I), which we will review in part three of this blog series.
Dr. Jason von Stietz specializes in Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Sport/Performance Psychology in Torrance, CA. He works in the Torrance office and is available for a free initial phone consultation. Dr. von Stietz works with individuals from Long Beach, the greater Los Angeles area, and the South Bay including Palos Verdes, Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, and El Segundo.