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Sleep: the foundation of resilience

Poor sleep is prevalent in 40% of the population and has been linked to anxiety, depression, and stress. The connection between sleep and resilience is explored

To succeed in today’s frenetic, 24/7 and interconnected global workplace, adaptability is key. It’s not a question of whether stresses and challenging life events will occur; that’s simply inevitable. The question employers are increasingly asking is: how can they best enable their teams to develop the mental resources they need to maintain peak performance in the face of adversity?

The ingredients of psychological resilience have been the subject of decades of scientific research. While the labels may vary by study, these are the core components which can be considered the building blocks of bouncing back from tough times:

  • The ability to manage strong emotions and impulses
  • Supportive and caring relationships
  • Being able to make realistic plans and to carry them out
  • Problem solving skills
  • A positive view of yourself, and optimism for the future

Workplace ‘Resiliency Programs’ which focus on education to develop cognitive capabilities and coping skills in these areas have been found to have small but beneficial effects. Employers can be reassured that investing in proven mental health programs promises a positive ROI, but the impact is often limited by the ability to engage those employees who most need help. When you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed, taking time out from the work day for extra lessons in mental agility may well fall to the bottom of the to-do list.

So, is there another way to boost mental resilience at scale? As you might expect from a Sleep Evangelist, I would argue that sleep holds the key, and I have science on my side!

“Expecting improvements in mental resilience without first addressing lack of sleep is a pretty tall order.”

In the current context in which over 40% of employees are regularly getting fewer than the recommended 7 hours sleep per night, expecting improvements in mental resilience without first addressing lack of sleep is a pretty tall order. The sleep deprived brain is effectively wearing a mental straight jacket; sleep loss interferes with all of the critical components of resilience – for example:

Emotional imbalance
The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for initiating our ‘fight-or-flight’ stress response. When we’re short on sleep, the amygdala becomes hyper-reactive. We’re effectively running on a very short fuse; we’re more likely to interpret challenges as threats, and to feel irritable, anxious and out of control.

Conflict and lack of empathy
It’s hard to maintain supportive relationships when we find it hard to empathize with others, but this is one of the hallmarks of short sleep. We find it harder to interpret others’ emotions, are more likely to pick an argument, and less able to resolve it.

Low self-regulatory capacity
A sleep deprived brain de-prioritizes activity in the areas responsible for aspects of ‘executive functioning’, which includes making logical arguments, forward planning and goal setting. This reduces our ability to control our impulses and cravings, and leaves us prone to risky behavior.

Lack of creativity
Sleep restores the brain’s ability to take in new information, and consolidates important memories. During REM sleep, we strengthen emotionally important connections, which can help us untangle the gist of complex information, and leave us more capable of finding novel solutions to problems.

Negativity bias
Remaining upbeat in the face of adversity is very difficult for short sleepers since they are more likely to remember negative events, and less able to focus on the positive. They also report lower levels of optimism and self-esteem.

Sleep and stress: in summary
Have you ever found yourself waking up repeatedly in the early hours of the morning, tired yet wired? Poor sleep is often the first sign of stress, even before you can put your finger on the cause. The brain never completely relaxes, and the racing mind will not switch off.

“On the spectrum of resilience to vulnerability, poor sleep puts you firmly in the most vulnerable category.”

At least one in five employees suffers from chronic insomnia, sleep problems which persist for at least three months, and interfere with our day-to-day functioning both at work and home. Untreated, these employees are at more than double the risk for future anxiety, depression or burnout. On the spectrum of resilience to vulnerability, poor sleep puts you firmly in the most vulnerable category.

Fortunately, the relationship between stress and sleep goes both ways; improve sleep, and those building blocks of resilience start to rebuild your mental shield against stress.

The gold standard treatment for addressing insomnia is called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, for Insomnia. It turns out that the cognitive techniques which help promote sleep (such as mindfulness, challenging negative thoughts and imagery), are all tools in the pro-resilience armory. But unlike traditional resilience programs, CBT for Insomnia also includes behavioral strategies to increase your natural sleep drive, to restore mental and physical energy levels.

“The cognitive techniques which help promote sleep are all tools in the pro-resilience armory. But unlike traditional resilience programs, CBT for Insomnia also includes behavioral strategies…”

Better quality sleep is typically the lifestyle goal everyone is most willing to meet! Whether we’re working with employees, patients or citizens at large, the effects on mental health are the same: better sleep means lower stress, less worry and more upbeat mood. At work, this means more energy, greater engagement, higher productivity – and all the ingredients of greater resilience. This is why we view healthy sleep as the critical foundation of any successful health & wellbeing program.

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During the COVID-19 public health emergency, Sleepio and Daylight are being made available as treatments for insomnia disorder and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), respectively, without a prescription. Sleepio and Daylight have not been cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of insomnia disorder and GAD, respectively.

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DOC-3046 Effective 11/2023