Snoozed Out

Sleep is for the weak sensible.

There are two kinds of people in this world: the early birds and the night owls. When the two merge to form a third kind (the perpetually exhausted ducks), is when a problem arises.

The human body is a fine-tuned marvel of nature, one that has evolved and perfected its mechanisms down to each minute detail over millions of years. One such mechanism that holds together the functionality of both your mind and body is sleep. Isn’t it a wonderful feeling to wake up fresh after a deep slumber? Or to have your classes cancelled and catch up on those precious hours of lost sleep?  The love-hate relationship between your bed and alarm clock makes you want to sleep your way through life (if only!), and an 8am class is a straight-up punch from hell.

A paralysis of body muscles and an alteration of your consciousness may sound freaky, but it’s precisely what sleep is. Not only does your body physically restore its balance and strength during quality sleep, your mental processes are also considerably affected and show improvement. Ergo, a misbalance in sleep can give rise to several physical and mental health issues. Conversely, sleep difficulties are strongly linked with physical illnesses and psychiatric disorders (for example, almost 90% of those suffering from depression have had drastic changes in their sleeping patterns). Though the spectrum of sleep disorders is quite large, insomnia and sleep deprivation appear to be the most commonly encountered sleep abnormalities. Other disorders include narcolepsy, sleep apnea and parasomnias (like sleepwalking). Nearly 20% of the world’s populace suffers from sleep disorders.

Sleep deprivation: The post-industrialization era has seen a drastic change in the sleeping habits of individuals; disrupted sleep timings and exposure to light during the dark hours has tweaked the ticking hands of our biological clock. Narrowing it down to the college-going youth, all of us are guilty of our procrastinating souls sacrificing hours of slumber for last-minute, panic-induced work. Pulling all-nighters during exams is no big deal, thanks to a dozen cups of coffee, red bulls, and wakefulness promoting pills. What we fail to comprehend is how heavily caffeinating our bodies and starving it of sleep can put us in a ‘sleep debt’, or an accumulation of incomplete sleep which carves way for increased emotional, mental and physical fatigue. Though there is no amount of sleep explicitly considered “essential”, 7-9 hours of sleep is usually appropriate for an adult. Not getting these crucial hours of shut-eye over time impairs memory, lowers your immunity, and leads to an increase in body weight (along with giving you those ugly panda-eyes).

Insomnia,typically characterized by sleeplessness (that is, difficulty in falling or staying asleep), is an involuntary form of sleep deprivation. Almost every person experiences it at least once in their lifetime (more commonly with the approach of exams or post a heart-wrenching break-up). Most of those suffering from chronic insomnia (persisting for at least three months) tend to subdue the symptoms by relying on sleep-inducing pills, when it is actually the causal issue that demands to be addressed. The two major reasons for insomnia are anxiety and depression. Other causes include stress, anger, worry, grief, mental trauma or a sudden change in the environment. Apart from the usual harmful effects of sleep deprivation, insomnia can also lead to anhedonia (loss of interest in daily activities), and further accentuate depression, making it a vicious cycle. Acute insomnia can generally be treated by self-regulatory methods such as avoiding caffeine, shutting screens at least an hour before sleeping, and exercising during the day. Overthinking enhances arousal, and mindful meditation can go a long way in relaxing the mind, helping it rid of stress and excessive worry. Being one of the most common disorders in students, the symptoms and effects of insomnia (inability to sleep, interrupted sleep, general fatigue) should be taken seriously (especially if they last for over a month), and be brought to light to a parent, teacher or counsellor without delay.

Narcolepsy is a long-term neurological disorder characterized by a decreased ability to regulate sleep-wake cycles. Symptoms include periods of excessive daytime sleepiness lasting from a few seconds to minutes, and may occur at any time. It is noteworthy to mention that narcolepsy does not imply staying awake till four in the morning, and then dozing in class. It is when in spite of being well-slept, the person is unable to control the urge to fall asleep, regardless of the activity they are indulged in. Many also experience symptoms such as sleep paralysis and cataplexy (sudden loss of muscle control). In these instances, they experience instances of “micro sleep”, which are very brief periods of sleep- lasting only a few seconds. For instance, if a person is in class taking notes (talking about your average first-bencher here), he/she may fall asleep, yet continue to take notes! However, since they would really be snoozing, their impaired cognitive ability would simply result in illegible scrawling on the notepad (precisely what we generally do to fool our teachers).

Sleep paralysis is a phenomenon in which an individual, either during falling asleep or awakening, briefly experiences an inability to move, speak, or react. It is a transitional state between wakefulness and sleep, often accompanied by terrifying hallucinations to which one is unable to react due to paralysis. Genetics and sleep deprivation are the primary causes of sleep paralysis. It has also been linked to other disorders such as narcolepsy, anxiety disorders and sleep apnea. It takes place when one’s mind and body enter into REM sleep, and the affected muscles soon return to normal. The episode, though lasting briefly, can be immensely frightening. Some who suffer from sleep paralysis report the feeling of an inability to breathe, even though they are able to do so the entire time.

Sleep is the ambrosia that mortals devour when the wakeful hours seem unbearable; but it’s a lot more than a refreshing pleasure. Arrested slumber, whether voluntary or involuntary, can have adverse effects on our functioning abilities. When forty winks are a wistful dream, tossing and turning to no avail is utterly futile; never hesitate to consult a professional. Therapy, along with medication (if necessary), help target the problem right at the roots. Always remember- sleep matters. So why be the exhausted duck?

Nabilah Husain and Tejal Khullar for MTTN

PS. This is our fourth article in the series of articles for the week we have earmarked as Mental Health Awareness Week.

To read the previous article on Depression click here .

To read our article on Panic Disorders click here.

To read our article on Social Anxiety click here.

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