Against the Grain, Part 3: Sleep Deprivation

“Expectations are (YUP… STILL) resentments waiting to happen.” (Yup… still Anne Lamott) Time Doesn’t Fit in Bottles In last week’s blog Against the Grain Part 2, we covered how going against the grain of our seasons can foster Seasonal Affective Disorder. This week let’s do the same with time, and how our norms confound our sleep. As mentioned in theintroduction to this series, we have a thing for forcing our lives into regimented boxes, even though life resists such rigid confinements.

Work schedules At one time, the majority of Americans lived and worked on farms. Our work schedules wrapped around the rising and setting of the sun, the seasons, and the weather. As technology and automation emerged, we were able to use artificial light, heating units, air conditioning. Now we could work as early or as late as we wanted to, in every season regardless of weather. Industry and manufacturing evolved, creating much more diversity in job options.

The majority of workers in the US are no longer farmers, and our work schedules no longer have anything to do with sunrise, sunset or weather. We forge on, expecting to do the same work do the same work do the same work, day after day after day. We start at such and such a time and end at such and such a time.

Against Task-Oriented Brain Grains Our culture functions with time-oriented expectations, as opposed to task-oriented. If something is said to start at 10:00 am, we are expected to be present and entirely ready to start when the clock says 10:00 am. We have taken something as changeable and nebulous as our experience of time and demanded it obey our perfectly divided boxes of seconds, minutes, hours, and meridians, (anti-meridian, or AM, or post-meridian, known as PM.)

We even developed a system to codify our miscalculation, (that time doesn’t truly fit in those boxes,) with the insistence on “Daylight Savings Time.” Word to the wise: We are not “saving daylight.” Daylight and lack of daylight are not in our control.

This is not how time works, but we will persist in our delusion, leaving a whole lot of people (and a whole lot of confused dogs who don’t understand what our problem is and why we have completely messed up their feeding and toileting times,) suddenly much more irritable two times a year until we force our bodies to comply.

School Schedules Most of us simply accept that school happens between morning and afternoon. Aside from those thoughtful people who continue to push for later times for high schoolmost of us don’t stop and ask why the times are what they are. Instead, we demand compliance and shame/penalize non-compliance. Must! Obey! Schedules! Boxes boxes boxes.

Do you know why our school times are what they are? When formalized education first began in the US, most kids worked their family farms. They woke early, did morning chores, went to school and got home in time to do evening chores. How many kids enrolled in school today do that? A very slim minority. And yet, there is some perceived virtue in complying with school schedules based on farm schedules.

And why do the high schoolers go so early, roughly half a school daybefore the adolescent brain becomes functional? Because most schools rotate their bus schedules between elementary, middle and high school runs. High schools are so much larger that they require fewer, but longer runs. Those busses then multiply and do the middle school runs, then the elementary runs. It’s more economical, but it costs our adolescents at every level.

Against Teen Brain Grains Teens aren’t sleepy because they’re lazy. They aren’t staying up later because they are being defiant. The hormonal shifts that occur in adolescence change the way their bodies process melatonin, which shifts their natural sleep cycles many hours later. But we still make them get up at o’dark thirty and start school before 8am. According to the NIH and the National Sleep Foundation, 43% of adolescents are sleep deprived, directly coinciding with the time of life where the frontal lobes have detached, challenging all of the same areas that sleep deprivation further challenges: Error correction, problem solving, risk and reward determination, social skill-building.

We are setting our kids up for failure and then shaming/penalizing them when they don’t meet biologically unreasonable expectations. But more than that – We are baking into their psyches this myth that the natural must comply with our external demands.

And So… Sleep Because our culture has demanded this compliance to productivity based on artificial factors and schedules, the medical field has promoted the idea that “good sleep” typically means 7-8 hours of consecutive sleep time. What time we go to sleep is most often determined by what time we wake up… which is most often determined by what time we need to start work, go to school, or help facilitate others getting up and ready for school or work. Which, as noted above, is all based on external scheduling that has nothing to do with natural rhythms.

In order to get those 7-8 hours, a supposedly healthy sleep consists of about three sleep cycles that include both REM and non-REM sleep periods. For most people, the first complete cycle of sleep uses our fatigue from the day to put us under for the biggest chunk of time, often 3-4 hours. We wake at the top of the sleep cycle, hopefully not enough to notice. On a good night, we float back down into another sleep cycle that’s shorter, briefly wake, go into another cycle, hopefully ending after a total sleep of about 7-8 hours.

But guess what?? Way back in the day before alarm clocks, artificial light, mechanized industry and technology, people got UP after that first sleep cycle, did something productive and then went back to sleep for a few more hours. Sleeping and waking was largely determined by energy need, sunrise and sunset. That was the natural sleep cycle of a human. Now there is actual shame attached to being up late at night, and for not being “a morning person,” (thanks for NOTHING, Benjamin Franklin, you are NOT the reference point for all things.)

The Challenge We can’t always control these outside demands. We can control our own expectations, commitments, and perspectives. Even when we can’t change the systems we are in, changing our self-expectations, even in subtle ways, can help a lot. Letting go of all the lies you’ve been told about certain times of day being for certain activities, when do you personally have more energy for work? When do you have more of an inclination to rest? What time of day do you find you are best able to focus and be productive?

If your answer is never, you are very likely well out of balance. It’s probably time to reach out for help. Otherwise, go with whatever you’ve got. Are you more alert at the start of your workday? Try to put as much of the “heavy load” of your tasks at that time. Do you want to just take a nap after lunch? You might consider how carb-heavy that meal was and make some adjustments. You also might want to strive for less brain work/ more rote, busy work for that time of day.

If you’re a student, think through your energy levels throughout the day. It’s hard to arrange your schedule not to have your worst subject at your worst time of day, but it’s definitely worth a try. If you can’t move the class, think about when you can do homework or study for that class at a time when you are actually awake. In college, we have more flexibility, but it still can sometimes be difficult. Think about scheduling some rest times in your rest-requiring parts of the day. Stop worrying so much about what others


your schedule to look like: Do what actually works for you.

It’s Like Hair Going against our natural grain – achieving “great” things – is considered a virtue in our country. It’s directly tied to our hierarchical structure that persistently demands the bigger BETTER M O R E. We have confused dessert for a meal. I am all for great achievements, challenging ourselves to more, but only in balance with the work-rest cycle I mentioned in the first blog of this series.

We can throw a bunch of products and tools at our hair to force it into submission. It might or might not work for a little while, but in the end, hair is always going to do pretty much what it wants to. If we expect it not to, we are likely to spend our lives at war with it. We get a lot more mileage when we cooperate with it, compromising between what we want and what it wants.

....................................................................................................................................................... Are you struggling with ways to tailor your life more to your natural cycles instead of obeying a clock? 

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