What are the effects of a long-continued reduction in the usual amount of sleep and how does sleep deprivation affect you? It depends very much on how stressful is the cause of the reduction of sleep, and, of course, by just how much the sleep is reduced.
In San Diego, California, experiments were carried out with volunteer couples who, over a period of months, gradually cut down their sleep duration from about seven hours nightly to about five hours, on a regular basis, and without any striking impairment of their mental or physical efficiency.
However, they could not escape from the feeling of fatigue and were unable to reduce their nocturnal sleep to a shorter period.
Research into the psychological problems faced by young hospital doctors has been carried to both in Cambridge, England, and in New York.
In Cambridge a variety of efficiency tests showed that the doctor’s professional performance was quite frequently impaired because of their hours of work; and, most particularly, it was found that they were unpredictable in their efficiency, sometimes doing as well as their natural best, and at other times being very inefficient indeed.
Many of the doctors themselves felt under stress and, for example, felt particularly difficulty in getting to sleep after a middle-of-the-night telephone conversation about a sick patient.
They left anxious about their sicker patients and had nightmares when they did sleep.
How does sleep deprivation affect you?
In New York, the doctors’ loss of sleep had similar effects. Some had lapses of memory: ‘I would forget what I had just said so that my next sentence would make no sense.’ Many described becoming irritable: ‘if you’re on two nights in a row, you want to do as little as possible:’ if you’re for two nights in a row, you want to do as little as possible.
Your give bad care. I am irritated all the time then; I can only think of one thing at a time. I can’t react to complexity. I give bad care to many patients, unfortunately.
When I am tired, I don’t give a goddamn.’ Another described how: ‘fatigue is stress that gets me depressed. The nurses kid me that I crawl into a corner when I am tired.
I become a monster then and I know it. In the last ward, the nurses were inexperienced and bothered me all the time.
I am ashamed of how nasty I was. I had no patience. How many mothers of young children could echo words like these!
The sudden loss of reasonableness, the snapping and shouting, and the later feelings of shame are not the kind of things that can be measured in laboratory research, but they are very important consequences of a long-continued reduction in the hours of sleep.
It is for reasons like these that there are rules and regulations that limit the length of tiring duties for some classes of occupation, like long-distance truck-driving, or for aircrew.
But such rules never apply to the mothers of small children, not to business people and statesmen and women who fly around the world having conferences, often working till late into the night and then getting up early, with their biological clocks badly disturbed by long-distance travel.
One must suppose that many of them are much worse impaired in their judgments than they themselves would realize, and feelings of irritability can hardly be ideal for coming to decisions that affect the destinies of huge multinational companies, and indeed of whole nations.
Young hospital doctors regularly hose sleep in the course of their work. Research has shown that irritability and impaired judgment are the most common effects of continued sleep loss.
Are people who feel that they are just poor sleepers, never getting a good night’s rest even though there is no easily identifiable cause liable to suffer in the same way? We cannot give a definite answer.
If they feel depressed and irritable by day, it cannot with certainty be attributed to a bad night, for it may be more a matter of individual temperament, that also badly.
We ourselves have sympathy with the view that such people are partly depressed and irritable because of bad sleep, and not just because they have a constitution that makes them both irritable and sleepless.
You will sleep if you really need to
Anxiety about sleep loss is itself a common cause of lost sleep. So to find out more about the effects of losing sleep, we have kept volunteers awake day and night.
After about seventy-two hours of continuous lack of sleep they start seeing things that are not there, their co-operation begins to flag, they may become suspicious and even do and say strange things.
The one thing they all have in common is that they fall asleep whenever they have a moment, undisturbed even walking along the street.
The lesson to learn from this is that when we are short of sleep, nature takes care to look after o run interests, and if we really need sleep, and have, take, or are given the opportunity to sleep, then we can rely on Nature to give us rest.
We have already described in this article some of the unpleasant consequences of lost sleep, irritability, for example; but we must emphasize that you cannot die of loss of sleep, not will you suffer long-term mental or physical ill-effects as a result.
You can take comfort from the fact that sleep is a self-regulation system so that when we really need it, we get it and almost nothing will stop us.
Before we leave the subject of the impairments in how people feel and act after the loss of sleep, we ought to mention the opposite side of the coin as revealed by the research of Drs Taub and Berger in Santa Cruz, California.
They have a how very clearly that sleeping longer than usual, or sleeping at irregular times, can lead to just about the same kinds of inefficiencies, feelings of low spirits, and irritability, as can be brought about by lack of sleep.
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