Sleep is essential to humans, just like food, water and oxygen, however it is usually only when we face problems with sleep that we begin to notice just how important it is. When we need to, we can cope without sleep for long periods of time, but the longer we are awake the more problems we may face. While there has been substantial debate around the exact function of sleep, most researchers agree that sleep helps us to restore both our physiological and psychological capacities.
Why do we need to sleep?
We are all able to recognise what sleep looks like – eyes closed, lying down, breathing slowly (or noisily in some cases) – however, sleep is much more than the shutting down of physical functions. While we may not be conscious to the world around us, our bodies are still just as active as when we are awake.
There has been much research in the field of sleep because it is so important to our day-to-day wellbeing. While there has been substantial debate around the exact function of sleep, most researchers agree that sleep helps to restore us both physiologically and psychologically.
What happens when we sleep?
One critical finding from current research is there are different stages of sleep.
REM (rapid eye movement)
This type of sleep occurs for around 25% of a night’s rest and is characterised by the electrical activity of the brain, the relaxation of the muscles and the body becoming immobile. Our eyes also rapidly dart backwards and forwards under our eyelids, hence the name “rapid eye movement”. REM sleep is important in providing energy to the brain and the body. It has often been said that dreams occur during REM sleep, although they can also occur at any stage.
NREM (non-rapid eye movement)
This second type of sleep occurs during the other 75% of the time and can be broken down into four stages:
Stage One is light sleep, between being awake and falling asleep
Stage Two is the onset of sleep when the person becomes disengaged from their surroundings. Body temperature drops and breathing and heart rate become regular.
Stages Three and Four are the deepest and most restorative stages, better known as ‘delta’ sleep. During these stages, blood pressure drops, breathing becomes slower and muscles are receiving more blood supply. Tissue growth and repair also occurs and hormones and released (including a growth hormone, which is why children and teenagers need to sleep more than adults).
What happens when we have problems with sleep?
How much sleep is needed varies from person to person. While the average sleep duration for an adult falls between 7 and 8.5 hours a night, some people can function well on 4 to 5 hours and others may need 9 or 10. Whatever your individual needs, lack of sleep or poor quality sleep can have adverse effects including:
Poor memory, concentration and attention
Irritability and other mood disturbances
Impaired judgement and reaction times
Poor physical co-ordination
The severity of these effects will depend on how much sleep deprivation has been experienced and what responsibilities you may have. If you have ongoing problems with sleep, it is important to seek help.
Counselling for sleep problems
Counselling and psychotherapy can be an effective method in helping individuals overcome sleeping problems. A counsellor can help you to explore the potential stresses and lifestyle choices which are affecting your sleep pattern. They can also teach you relaxation techniques to help you switch off before you go to bed. Cognitive Behavioural Techniques can be used to help you overcome any anxiety issues which may be causing your sleep problems.
Understanding the underlying causes of your sleep problem
Examining patterns in your sleeping
Exploring factors in your lifestyle which could be exacerbating sleep problems
Learning relaxation techniques
Targeting anxieties that may prevent you from going to sleep
Sleep problems affect a huge number of people and can lead to a number of physiological and psychological issues. However, they can also be caused by a number of issues including depression, stress and anxiety. This can lead to a vicious cycle where individuals can become severely distressed due to lack of sleep, which then prevents them from having healthy sleep in future and causes further distress. If you are suffering from sleep deprivation, counselling can help to end that suffering and give you back a healthy and restorative nightly sleep.