Most of the sleep research I come across generally focuses on outliers and extremes, but this new study published in the journal Sleep is applicable to the average person living in Victoria today.

In this study, participants were assigned to groups and forced to get either 4, 6, or 8 hours of sleep nightly for a two week period. There were also an unfortunate number of participants who were forced to stay up for 48 hours to act as a comparison group.

Throughout the study, all participants were tested every two hours on cognitive performance and perception of tiredness, and this is where things start to get interesting.

The people who got 4 hours of sleep declined quickly on the performance test, and their self-perception of tiredness went up in direct relation to both cognitive decline and over time. Basically, these people knew that they were overtired and not functioning as well as they would with more sleep.

The people who got 6 hours of sleep however, did not report feeling increasingly tired as the study progressed and were unable to recognize their decline in cognitive functioning, even though by the end of the two weeks, they were doing as poorly on the cognitive tests as those participants who had been kept awake for 48 hours straight.

An additional piece of research that makes these findings even more relevant for the average person, is one published in Epidemiology in 2008 which looked at 669 participants and found that the average measured sleep in the study was 6 hours per night, and that participants, on average, over-estimated their time asleep per night by nearly 1 hour each night.

This means that for many people who report that they get around 7 hours of sleep per night, they are likely only getting 6 hours, and most importantly are also experiencing cognitive performance declines that they are unable to accurately assess, most likely, because they have been existing in this state/pattern for a very long time.

So what to do then?

If this research resonates with you, shifting to a new and healthier relationship with sleep will require more than simple sleep hygiene tips and techniques (I outlined a bunch of these in the Protect Your Mood This Fall post)- they will be a foundational part of the process, but longstanding patterns, such as sleep require a deeper look, and will likely be challenging.

This deeper look will entail (among many things) examining your beliefs and feelings/expectations about sleep, because these support the myriad of choices that we make every day that either support or impair your relationship with sleep. A simple example of the way that beliefs play a role in sleep is a person who really values sleep, vs. someone who views sleep as something that they ‘do’ once everything else is ‘done’. Each belief will lead to very different sleep patterns and challenges associated with implementing sleep changes.

Taking a close, compassionate look at your relationship with sleep, and history of sleep, will lead towards a better understanding of the forces within you and your environment that positively or negatively impact your relationship with sleep, and you can develop a new relationship that works best for you. I wish you a good night’s sleep.