When I first met with a young woman I will call Shelly several months ago, I must admit I was a bit confused about what was going on with her diagnostically. She just didn’t seem to fit the usual categories that we typically see when conducting an initial assessment. Although she was most certainly stressed and overwhelmed with her life, she didn’t meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder. I considered Depression as a possible diagnosis because she was having symptoms like low energy and lack of motivation, but in the end it didn’t feel like these symptoms were the central issues. The more time I spent with Shelly, the more clear it became: stress, anxiety, and depression were just symptoms that were driven by a more stealthy problem. Lurking underneath things like chronic fatigue and lack of follow=through was a chaotic sleep schedule that was driven by a late night Facebook addiction and a tendency to get lost in random IPad games. Basically, the Facebook pics of old high school friends and games like Candy Crush were preventing her from getting a healthy night’s sleep. Instead, she would exchange the opportunity for seven to eight hours of sleep for a technology fix combined with a four or five hour cat nap. Screen time replaced a good night’s sleep.
This story has a happy ending. Shelly got better. She started to impose a rigid schedule into her life that included not only eight hours of sleep a night, but also a healthy dose of exercise and progressive relaxation. Eventually, she replaced her screen addiction with healthy behaviors that served her future goals and dreams. She started actually living her life, rather than just existing. But Shelly would not have made any of these positive changes if she had not been able to replenish her resources and get a healthy night’s sleep.
The research is clear: 95% of us need seven to nine hours of sleep a night in order to be energized for a typical day. Many of us are not getting an adequate amount of sleep and are suffering with the resulting stress, depression, and anxiety. For the record, there is a physiological reason a chronic lack of sleep leads to emotional problems. When you sleep, not only do you rest your active neurons, but you give your Glial Cells an opportunity to clean up the toxins that are produced by neurons during your waking hours. If you get less than seven to nine hours of sleep a night, the toxins remain there and cause reduced attention, impaired memory, compromised problems solving, a reduced metabolism (which will cause you to gain weight), and a host of other mental/emotional problems. Here’s the kicker for Shelly, and for many of us who like technology. Looking at screens before you go to bed actually tells your brain “stay awake…it’s not time to go to sleep yet.” The glow of a screen actually prevents the release of melatonin, which we all know is necessary for you to feel sleepy.
For those who are ready to get serious about a healthy sleep pattern, focus first and foremost on creating a bedtime routine that will put you in a position to actually get sleepy at night. Turn your screens off at least an hour before you want to go to sleep. No email, no Facebook, no IPad, and even no television. Fight the instinct to compose that last text, and instead unplug from the virtual world and focus on winding down. That’s what Shelly did, which was the end of her screen addiction and the beginning of a new life.
(Please comment on this post. I’m interested in knowing your thoughts on why it’s so hard for us to turn the screens off in the first place!)