Drowsiness is a red alert

In my research for yesterday’s post on our profound sleep crisis, I came across some startling work from Dr. William Dement of Stanford University’s Center of Excellence for the Diagnosis and Treatment of Sleep Disorders.

I had to tell you about it.

So many times in my life so far, in order to get somewhere that was important to me, I have continued to drive while feeling drowsy. It’s often seemed to me to be not too bad. ‘Just a little further’, I tell myself. Wind the windows down. Put some music on. Grip the wheel. Sip some water. I’ll soon be there.

Never again.

Dr Dement tells us we must treat drowsiness – which so many of us experience while driving – not as a sign of being a little tired but as a red alert, as the last step before falling asleep, not the first.

‘Drowsiness’, he tells us, ‘means you are seconds away from sleep.’

Although I say to myself I take safe driving seriously, I really didn’t understand the seriousness of this before. And I am shaken by the possible consequences of my self-reassurance, my denial of the seriousness of the situation, and my turning away from the wisdom of my own body.

Surely this, if anything, is a call to wake up.

‘Imagine what it could mean’, Dement says, ‘when you’re behind the wheel of a car driving on the highway. Drowsiness may mean you are seconds from a disaster.’

He continues – ‘If everyone responded as if it were an emergency when they became aware of feeling drowsy, an enormous amount of human suffering and catastrophic events would be avoided … Seconds away from sleep may mean seconds away from death.’

You can read more of Dr. Dement’s work on his website here, or read about his work and that of many others in the sleep section of Tony Schwartz’s wonderful book Be Excellent at Anything (previously titled The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working).

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A profound crisis of sleep

“Ours is the only species that lights up its biological night, that overrides its own rhythms, crosses times zones, and works and sleeps at times that run counter to its internal clocks. We ignore what our clocks remember at our own peril.”

Jennifer Ackerman, Sex Eat Sleep Drink Dream

The evidence is clear. There is little more foundational to our effectiveness (that is, our capacity to do, skilfully, what matters to us), and our well-being, than sufficient sleep.

The more I read about this, and the more I experience it in my own life, the more convinced I am that we are in the midst of a profound sleep crisis that shapes our society, education system, health, politics, and capacity to do what matters – and that at the heart of it is our equally profound forgetting of what sleep is and what it is to be awake.

Each of us has a powerful physiological mechanism, the sleep homeostat, that functions to regulate the daily amount of sleep we have by influencing our tendency to feel drowsy. If we allow the process to work as it should, we get enough sleep simply by responding to the drowsiness we experience – going to bed earlier, taking an afternoon nap, sleeping-in longer, or otherwise arranging to rest sufficiently.

But we live in a culture that teaches us to disregard our own bodies, to pursue ever more (possessions, productivity, status, experiences), and to deny our physical limits. We have unprecedented access to technology to support us in this project – electric lighting to illuminate our nights, devices we carry that remind us of our responsibilities and of what we’re missing out on, and that allow us to be reached at any moment. And because of this, sleep is one of the very first of life’s basic necessities we’re prepared to give up in our pursuit of more.

It’s a huge mistake.

As we resist our bodies’ call to sleep, and as the effect of the sleep homeostat becomes more apparent, we become more and more drowsy, and more and more cognitively, emotionally, and physically compromised. And the effect is cumulative. Every hour of missed sleep is carried in our bodies which is why, after a working week in which you’ve missed two hours of sleep a night, you need ten hours of additional sleep to restore yourself. Two weekend morning lie-ins of a couple of hours which leave you feeling just as tired are a sure sign you’re carrying a significant sleep deficit.

The frightening thing about this is that in contemporary culture, we’ve mostly forgotten what it feels like to be sufficiently rested. We think that boredom, or a stuffy room, or a long drive, or a report to write make us feel tired – without realising that we’re experiencing the effects of our sleep deficit. We keep going because we can’t stand the drowsiness that slowing down visits upon us.

We are a society that barely knows the clarity and crispness and aliveness of being fully awake.

There is compelling evidence that the lack of sleep that the majority of us suffer from has profound effects on our creativity, capacity to solve problems, irritability, propensity to become ill, tendency to make errors, and on our safety behind the wheel. And yet we wear our busyness and tiredness as badges of honour, imagining that our capacity to (apparently) conquer our limited physical bodies is not only required but a sure sign of our personal dedication and success.

We imagine that pushing longer, harder, doing more will eventually solve our suffering, even while we visit enormous suffering and damage upon ourselves and others. And we ask this not just of ourselves but teach this to our children by asking more and more of them too – more activities, more homework assignments, more progress that we think will get them ahead, at the expense of the basic sleep that would be so life-giving for them.

Isn’t it time we gave up the madness and suffering of sleep deprived lives and a sleep deprived society, and taught ourselves again the wisdom that our split-off-from-ourselves bodies know so deeply, and so well?

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