Young woman unable to sleep

Stop Losing Sleep Over Sleep: 3 Common Myths That Increase Sleep Anxiety

Do you find yourself obsessing over the amount of sleep you get each night? Many of us do. Raising my hand here, I have counted myself among the crowd to worry about this one. We live in a society that constantly bombards us with information about the perfect amount of sleep needed to function well. But how much of that information is actually adding to our stress and sleep anxiety?

Here are a few myths that we can push back on that might put your mind a little more at ease when you’re counting those sheep.

Myth 1: Everyone Needs Eight Hours of Sleep

How many times have you stared at the clock on a sleepless night, calculated the hours before the alarm goes off, and realized you weren’t even going to get close to eight hours of sleep?

One of the biggest myths is that everyone needs eight hours of sleep to be healthy and productive. I’m not sure if this was due to a well-intentioned episode of Schoolhouse Rock, but somehow this number got deeply embedded in our collective knowledge bank.

This magic number eight has become a standard benchmark for sleep, and many of us panic if we don’t hit it, convinced we’re setting ourselves up for a lifetime of poor performance and bad health.

But is this really true?

Research shows that the relationship between sleep duration and health is more nuanced than you might think. A 2002 study titled “Mortality Associated With Sleep Duration and Insomnia” found surprising results:

The best survival was found among those who slept 7 hours per night. Participants who reported sleeping 8 hours or more experienced significantly increased mortality hazard, as did those who slept 6 hours or less. The increased risk exceeded 15% for those reporting more than 8.5 hours sleep or less than 3.5 or 4.5 hours.

This data shows that sleeping too little or too much can increase your risk of dying. Interestingly, the highest risk from too little sleep (15%) starts to improve at 4.5 hours, which still sounds like a terrible night to me. If you’re getting a little more than 4.5 hours, your risk is still lower than if you were sleeping for 8.5 hours.

Because of math, I can tell you that 4.5 hours is actually closer to the ideal seven hours of sleep than eight hours is. From a psychological standpoint, not getting 2.5 hours of sleep is better than not getting 3.5 hours of sleep.

So, just remember, if there’s a magic number for sleep, it’s probably around 7 hours – give or take – not 8.

Your body’s sleep needs can vary. What matters more is the quality of sleep you’re getting. Instead of fixating on a set number of hours, pay attention to how you feel during the day. Are you alert and able to function well? If so, you’re likely getting the rest you need.

Myth 2: You Must Meet 100% of Your Sleep Needs Every Night

Another common belief is that you must meet 100% of your sleep needs every night to be healthy and function well. This all-or-nothing thinking sets an unrealistic expectation. It’s normal to sometimes not get enough sleep. Life happens – stress, work deadlines, and family obligations can interfere with sleep.

What’s important is understanding that occasional sleep deficits are part of life. Just like pain or taxes, some sleepless nights are part of being human. What you lack for a night or two, your body will figure out how to make up. No need to be perfect here.

Many people turn to sleep trackers and wearable tech, believing these “objective” tools will help them achieve that elusive 100% of their sleep needs. However, relying on these devices just serves to create additional stress.

When clients show me their sleep tracker data, it rarely tells a good story, often leaving them frustrated and worried, even if they report actually feeling rested. These trackers aren’t designed for this kind of  scrutiny (too many other variables in play) and can make you feel like you’re constantly falling short. Who needs that?

This obsession with hitting perfect sleep metrics can actually heighten sleep-related anxiety, making you feel more pressure to meet unrealistic standards.

Again, who needs that?

Myth 3: Not Getting Enough Sleep Will Make You Gain Weight

This worry often stems from sensationalized health reports because so many of us struggle with our weight. According to some in the media, lack of sleep is becoming the “new sitting,” which has become the “new smoking.”

While chronic sleep deprivation can contribute to some health problems, the direct link between occasional lack of sleep and significant weight issues is less clear-cut. Research shows that other factors like diet and physical activity play way more significant roles in managing weight than the amount of shut-eye you’re getting.

A 2013 study by the University of Pennsylvania examined the effects of sleep restriction on weight gain, caloric intake, and meal timing in healthy adults. The findings indicated that yes, sleep restriction can indeed lead to weight gain.

Participants who slept only four hours per night for five consecutive nights gained significantly more weight compared to the control group who slept for 10 hours per night.

Here’s why, though: The sleep-restricted subjects consumed more calories, especially during late-night hours, and had more meals and late-night snacks.

Their lack of sleep wasn’t magically causing their weight gain. Because they were awake longer, they simply had more opportunities to nosh.

So instead of freaking out about not getting enough sleep, focus on areas you can control: exercise and nutrition. Regular physical activity has a more significant impact on managing weight and overall health than sleep alone.

Honestly, if you could do one major thing to improve your health, you’d be better served to start exercising than improving your sleep. Exercise is that big of a deal.

This isn’t to say sleep isn’t important – it is. But the level of anxiety we attach to not getting enough sleep often outweighs the actual risks. By obsessing over sleep, we overlook critical aspects of health that we have more control over, like diet and exercise.

The Impact of Worrying About Sleep

Constantly worrying about not getting enough sleep turns sleep into yet another performance metric, like measuring macros and constantly taking your blood pressure. This kind of focus on something you have very little control over creates a vicious cycle of stress and sleeplessness.

Accept that not every night will be perfect and that occasional sleep deficits are a normal part of life. Focus on sleep as just one piece of the health puzzle. An approach that includes good sleep hygiene, regular exercise, and a balanced diet is the key to well-being and staying resilient to stress.

And stay out of the fridge at night!

Woman asleep wearing a sleep tracking watch

The Problem with Sleep Trackers

Everything runs on data now (and Dunkin’), so it’s easy to hand over the reins to a gadget or an app to find out how we’re doing.

Sleep trackers and apps come up a lot in my work with clients. Because so many people struggling with their mental health have issues with sleep, many of them have resorted to trackers and wearable tech to try to get better data about their sleep patterns.

We’ve got watches, earbuds, and rings, you name it.

In the old days, approximately 2014, you could put your phone under your pillow and it would capture your movements while you slept. That was nice because the warmth from your battery overheating kept your pillow nice and cozy. 🤦🏻‍♀️

Invariably when I ask my clients how well they sleep, they whip out their phone to tell me.

And it almost never reports a good story. There’s always a deficit somewhere in the week prior, leaving my client frustrated and worried about how to interpret and improve their data.

Now we have frustration and worry on top of whatever we’re already working on, which, of course, doesn’t help at all.

Sleep trackers aren’t designed for this kind of scrutiny. There are too many uncontrollable variables in your world that make the data they collect suspect.

At best, they might give you a little peek into an area or two, like how many times you moved around in the night, or how long you were in bed. How does that help you sleep better?

Real, actionable data on sleep comes from a lab in a facility where you are observed in a room while hooked up to wires and monitored. I’m not sure how well I would sleep in that environment.

And believe it or not, those lab tests don’t really measure insomnia. Instead they are looking for sleep apnea or other conditions that might be detrimental to your health.

Still, we let these trackers dictate our mood and ultimately our choices, when they really don’t have the whole picture in terms of what data really constitutes good sleep.

In my opinion, sleep trackers create more stress than they alleviate.

It’s like having a backseat driver in your brain, constantly pointing out every wrong turn. Fine, you only got an hour of REM sleep last night. What exactly are you supposed to do about that?

You can get good, unmedicated sleep using a more empirically-based method like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (I’m certified in CBT-I so ask me more about that if you’re curious 😉).

It takes a bit of time and focus to unlearn some myths and bad habits around sleep, but once you learn them (and apply them), you will be amazed at how much better you feel about your sleep.

And you don’t have to wear your watch to bed unless you’re just super time conscious.

We may need to work on that, too. 😆

At the same time, I’m not a Luddite.

I like technology and apps because they can help us do some things better and faster.

What kind of technology can you use instead of a sleep tracker?

For starters, how about the one that reminds you to land your busy daytime plane and get ready for bed?

Time moves fast at night, especially if you are busy with kids and kitchens.

Once you sit down, it’s easy to let Netflix keep rolling you over to that next episode. (Do you remember when we had to use a remote for that? If you’re old enough, you may remember actually being the remote in your family. Good times.)

Use your calendar app, reminder app, or some proprietary app that does basically the same thing to light up when it’s time to start winding down.

Don’t set a reminder that says, “Go to bed.” No one likes that. You don’t just throw your kid in bed and turn the light out, do you?

No, you get them started with a bath, cozy pajamas, brushing teeth, and then a book, or two, … or ten.

Use your app to remind you of the first step in your own cozy, beddy-bye time ritual. You’ll be a whole lot more excited about a reminder to get in your fuzzy Hello Kitty jammies than in just going to bed.

Another great way to use technology is to capture all the garbage that invariably starts coming to the surface when your brain is taking its last gasps of air for the day.

Whether it’s your Notes app, your Todoist list, your Trello map, whatever, use it to get that stuff out of your head and somewhere else.

No doubt while you’re reading your nighttime print book (because print books don’t give off blue light) you’ll be tempted to wonder if you included the Net Sales Valuation in  your TPS report. Capture that wonderment in your app and move on. You’ll take a look at that tomorrow morning before you send the report.

The best use of an app for sleep is to use a meditation app to seal the deal.

But not just any meditation app, the best is to find one that does a Body Scan Meditation. We’re not emptying our mind or anything transcendental.

This exercise will teach you to relax your whole body bit by bit. We Westerners are a tense bunch, and most of us carry stress in our muscles most of the time.

Even when you feel pretty relaxed when you turn out the light, you will be surprised how much tension is still in your neck and shoulders that you need to release.

Plus, a body scan is a great way to learn to relax during the day, so you can be good and relaxed at work. That would be nice, wouldn’t it?

I think we can all agree that technology is here to stay. But technology should never stress you out, or make you worry about something else.

Use it to help you, and remember, you always have the power to use that power button.

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