Climate change is indeed a nightmare. Can a better sleep routine help?
In those early days and weeks after giving birth, my relationship to sleep permanently changed. Kind of like the way a freight train permanently changes a basketball stuck to the track. It had been in the works for a while, slipping away in those last few uncomfortably pregnant months, which fell during the hot summer in already-hot Los Angeles.
Unless you’ve parented, served in the military, or worked a job that required waking before the sun, you don’t likely understand the level of sleep deprivation that comes from waking every two hours (at least) to feed and change and rock back to sleep a tiny, helpless human. There’s a reason sleep deprivation is a torture method. “Disorienting” doesn’t come close to describing the sensation. It’s sheer madness, physically and emotionally painful.
The only word I’ve ever felt encapsulated the feeling of sleep deprivation properly is desperate. There’s an absolutely desperate, urgent need to slip into the unconscious—wherever that is. The need is so overpowering that most of us will do or say absolutely anything to get there. It’s one of the reasons why people admit to crimes they didn’t commit, or, on the flip side of that, commit crimes they didn’t intend to when they’re sleep-deprived. Like someone on the verge of drowning pushing for the surface for a gasp of air, when we’re sleep-deprived, we’re searching for even a second of sleep.
Sleep deprivation doesn’t have to be that acute, though. Ariana Huffington showed how prolonged but not necessarily extreme exhaustion over time led to her breaking point.
“It was a day I’ve talked and written about dozens of times—the day I collapsed from sleep deprivation and exhaustion, broke my cheekbone and woke up in a pool of blood,” Huffington recalled in a blog post.
“For me, that day literally changed my life. It put me on a course in which I changed how I work and how I live,” Huffington wrote.
The author and founder of Thrive Global has now made sleep and mental health her focus. She aims to help us break our addiction to sleep deprivation and to foster work environments that support better sleep and better work-life balances.
The science is there, too. Regular sleep of at least 6 to 8 hours every night is how we function best. Just the same as we need oxygen and water, we need this most urgently, some could argue, even more than we need food. We can go weeks without calories, but a few days without sleep is nothing short of deadly.
We can go longer without a meal than we can without sleep. Staying up just one full day without sleep affects focus and performance as much as having a blood-alcohol level of 0.10 percent (the blood-alcohol level considered legally drunk is 0.08 percent). And because sleep deprivation impairs us so significantly so quickly, we’re at a greater risk of an accident that could put our lives or someone else’s at risk when we haven’t slept.
Sleep deprivation is also tied to increased risks of certain diseases including heart disease, stroke, dementia, and certain types of cancer.
Post-pandemic (if we’re ever going to be “post”), travelers are now even seeking out “sleep” wellness vacations. Even though we spent the last two years at home, which, in theory, would make us all more rested, many of us are more exhausted than ever, even when we’re not getting up as early to commute.
There’s data that says stress actually makes us more tired than when we’re unstressed. If you doom scrolled in those first few lockdown months until you passed out after midnight, or were stressing over loved ones, co-workers, or the general awfulness of a pandemic, you’re not alone. And if you sheltered at home with children, your stress levels likely went through the roof trying to juggle work and school and home and some semblance of a line separating them all. We all went a little Bo Burnham Inside while inside. Needing some time away now to sleep “better” makes a bit of sense.
“Hotels and wellness resorts are responding in turn, forging their own strategies to help travelers figure out how to fix their sleep schedules,” Debra Kamin writes for Conde Nast. “Not only are they doubling down on pre-pandemic offerings—like kitting out guest rooms with custom bedding and incorporating aromatherapy spa rituals into their slate of treatments—they’re also rolling out new programs specifically designed to soothe our pandemic-rattled psyche so that drifting off becomes a breeze.”
Kamin, also a parent, took a break, a “21-Day Perfect Balance Sabbatical,” at Baja California’s Rancho La Puerta, where devices are not encouraged.
“I’ll admit it: I cheated, sneaking regular peeks at my WhatsApps and emails. But after a day with significantly less screen time, I slept more soundly than I have in months,” Kamin said.
“The ranch’s philosophy is that sleep is connected to all aspects of wellness: physical, mental, and spiritual.”
Sleep and Climate Change?
What does our sleep hygiene have to do with the climate crisis, though? A lot more than we may think.
For starters, being overtired makes us quicker to reach for support, and that’s typically not always the best kind. We may reach for substances or unhealthy food that come in single-serve, plastic containers. They add up, fast. We turn to devices, and indulge in bad habits, and even drive more instead of considering other options, like biking or public transport, because we’re too tired to do much else, even when the risk of accident is compounded by our lack of sleep.
But, more than that, when we’re exhausted, we’re in that fight or flight mode solely focused on our own survival. It’s difficult to think about the needs of the planet when we can’t even tend to our own.
A 2018 study found those who slept better showed more empathy toward people in distress than those who had less sleep. Brain activity associated with emotions and empathy increased in those who slept better. In other words, our brains can’t even comprehend the (global) distress of issues like climate change when we’re exhausted. It’s like our brains put up barricades to any other problems that could prevent us from attending to the most urgent one: sleep.
Another study found that a lack of sleep made subjects more likely to withdraw from social situations; subjects who slept better reported less loneliness. “A lack of sleep leads individuals to become more socially avoidant, keeping greater social distance from others,” the researchers concluded. Feeling like a part of society is critical in taking up causes like the climate crisis.
Enough sleep is also associated with feeling less angry and less prejudiced toward others, another 2018 study found. Anger can be a normal response and even a motivator for doing good, particularly in relation to social justice and environmental issues, like the climate crisis. But for sleep-deprived individuals, it can be tough to even get to the issues themselves, navigating instead the mire of discomfort and frustration caused by a lack of sleep.
Dreaming of a Better World
Does that mean we all need to unplug for three weeks and take a sabbatical?
Not likely. But it’s important to consider the role our collective sleeplessness is playing in our progress as a species—or, rather, lack of it.
Just a few nights ago, I found myself in a sleepless fit. I drank coffee later in the day than I do usually, and I was struggling to drift off. Even though it’s been seven years (nearly eight) since my daughter was born, sleep is still an issue for me. I still startle at the slightest noise, and it can take me hours to fall back asleep once awake.
As I laid there that night, exhausted, frustrated, and acutely aware of the impact that shorter-than-usual night would have on me the next day, I took my mind in another direction than my normal panic spiral. Instead of doing the math to determine just how much sleep I may get if I slipped into the unconscious right then and there, I imagined instead all that I could do—would do—in the morning if I were able to just let myself drift off.
These weren’t purely selfish endeavors (except maybe the oat milk latte); these were thoughts about the planet, my work, and how to best explain the urgency of addressing our climate crisis.
I don’t remember when I drifted off, I never do, but it was somewhere around there, where I was not exactly daydreaming of a better world, but imagining the one I know is possible. One where we don’t have to work so hard, so tirelessly, at “saving” it in order to have the time for the things that really matter: like laying in bed and dreaming.