Everywhere I go, people tell me they’re not getting enough sleep. As an executive coach it’s crucial that I help my clients perform at their peak, sleep deprived or not. Recently I met with Dr. Jessica Payne, cognitive neuroscientist and assistant professor at the University of Notre Dame. Payne specializes in sleep and how it affects stamina and our ability to perform.
The worldwide state of sleep
The amount of sleep you need is highly personal and ranges between 4 and 12 hours per night, although the average is 8. Most of us fall asleep within about 20 minutes. During the first part of the nightly sleep cycle is where we get slow wave sleep, or SWS. This is deep, physically rejuvenating, and hard to wake up from and is where you consolidate your most important memories.
Next we enter rapid eye movement, or REM, sleep, which is where we make mental connections, are most creative, and process and regulate emotions. REM sleep is the time of night when your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex--your executive command center--is deactivated, meaning you are now wildly creative and open to all possibilities.
We need both SWS and REM for the proverbial good night’s sleep. But our REM state gets short-changed when we have to wake up too soon; this is when what I call REM rip-off occurs. And this, my friends, is where the trouble begins.
Signs of REM rip-off are irritability, excessive focus on the negative/inability to see the positive/glass half empty/general crabbiness, and less ability to enjoy life.
Why? Because your hippocampus and anterior cingulate cortex (part of the prefrontal cortex where creativity, planning, problem solving, and innovation reside) are more active during REM. These essential parts of your brain put the brakes on, and regulate, emotions. So in REM rip-off, these parts of the brain can’t do their job very well. The result is your amygdala becomes overactive (because the emotional brakes aren’t on) and you’re more grumpy, unhappy, and prone to only remembering the negative.
A full-night’s sleep improves your ability to regulate emotions. Period.
The solution? Stamina boosters
Here are three strategies:
1. Get 20 more minutes of sleep. Payne suggests that 20 minutes more sleep per night can boost performance at work two to three times. Wow! How can you get 20 more minutes? Go to bed earlier, sleep later, take a 20-minute power nap, or perhaps even use what she calls a “sleep proxy” (meditation, reflective walking). A 10- to 20-minute nap is tremendously effective, too; just be sure to stop at 20 minutes to avoid sliding into SMS, as you’ll wake up feeling groggy.
2. Moderate stress. Chronic stress results in your body cranking out cortisol, which is toxic to brain cells. Excessive stress may also shrink your hippocampus and make your amygdala hyperactive. In escalated stress, we focus on negative memories, too. One solution is to activate your parasympathetic system with a five-minute visualization or relaxation exercise, short walk, burst of exercise, or breathing exercises. All are likely to build neural tissue.
3. Boost positive emotions. More positive emotions will boost your stamina, too. Watching funny movies, frequent laughter, doing nice things for others, all help. Here’s a quick way to forge a positive neural pathway around gratitude: Close your eyes. Focus on a blessing in your life, something you are thankful for. See an image of this blessing in your mind’s eye. Offer a silent "thank you” to the person or object of your blessing. Relax into the feeling of gratitude. Take a deep breath. Feel more gratitude.
Brain research from UCLA reveals that six doses of feeling 30 seconds of gratitude daily (a whopping three minutes) will enable your neurons to fire together and wire together around gratitude within a mere two weeks. This means you’ll more easily and frequently access the feeling of gratitude.
So if you must be sleep deprived, use one of Payne’s strategies above and bask in the benefits.