We spend a third of our lives asleep, for the average adult that equates to almost 30 years sleeping! This tells us that is must be a vital part of living, something we all creatures need to do for survival. Yet it is still something of a mystery, an elusive time in our lives that despite years of research, scientists still find themselves debating about it’s function in our lives.  Our knowledge of sleep has advanced more in the past 30 years than ever, but there’s still much more to learn.

While you may have heard the average adult needs 7-8 hours sleep per night to function well, some individuals can function normally, without experiencing sleepiness or drowsiness, on as few as five or six hours of sleep, while others need ten hours of sleep. So always remember when thinking about your sleep, be compassionate towards yourself and think of yourself as an individual, not an average. How do you feel when you wake up after sleep? Are you able to sustain energy throughout your day, without needing ‘pick me ups’?

Historically, humans have changed and adapted how we sleep and some of the changes are particularly interesting. Sleeping in two segments (first sleep and second sleep) was normal in the 17th century. People would get up in the middle of the night for an hour or two and eat, read, pray, be intimate, or socialize with others, which was often easy as they would all be sleeping in the same room, even the same bed!

After the industrial revolution and the invention of the lightbulb our sleeping habits changed. Victorian morality saw married couple’s sleeping in separate beds, but post world war saw a rise in bringing couples back together in the bedroom and even communal family sleeping became common again.

It was in 1925 when the first sleep lab was produced and when sleep was really taken seriously as something worth researching and by the 1970’s sleep was seen as a science. Through tracking and analysing sleep patterns it became clear that sleep is not a ‘one size fits all’ situation, which in turn has produced some interesting facts. For instance, we know that tiredness peaks twice a day, at 2 am and 2 pm, which is why you are less alert after lunch and that afternoon slump happened even to the healthiest of sleepers.

Particularly noticeable is the fact that humans are the only mammals that will delay it willingly. We started seeing sleep as the enemy and as our lives have become even more busy, we often feel that there are not enough hours in the day and so will let our work and social lives eat into our natural sleeping time.

There are four/five stages of sleep, which you typically move through in order the first time, then move back and forth between select groups of them throughout the night. Each stage has it’s own benefit and significance in supporting both our physical and mental health.

The most important stage of sleep for mental wellbeing is the final stage of sleep known as Rapid Eye-Movement (REM), which is when we dream. During this process our brain is working tirelessly to move the emotional, negative experiences we have had from the Primitive mind into the Intellectual mind, where it has control and can see them as a narrative. Have you ever found that you have had an argument with someone in the day and you keep replaying it over and over in your mind when you are lying in bed at night, thinking of how annoyed you are, or what you wish you had said? It has really riled you up. Yet when you wake up the following morning you find yourself thinking ‘what was I so worked up about?’ or ‘I can’t believe I let them upset me so much’. The argument has not been erased from your mind, but simply moved from a negative, emotional experience in the primitive mind, to a memory to be stored in the intellectual mind, where it can be assessed and rationally processed.

We know that people dream up to 3 to 4 times more than they usually would when suffering from depression, which is often why someone with depression will feel exhausted no matter how much sleep they get, as their brain is working extra hard during sleep to process everything. This is why it is important to check in with yourself and notice how you feel from waking and throughout the day.

As you reflect on your need to balance the role of being an employee with that of being a parent, partner, friend, family member and whatever other roles you play, it becomes clear that it’s time to start giving some thought to your sleeping habits sooner than later, but always on an individual basis and with self-compassion. After all the kinder you are to yourself and the less you worry about sleep, the easier you will find it to naturally fall asleep and have quality sleep.


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