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Would you get it?
Everywhere I go people tell me they’re not getting enough sleep. As an executive coach it’s key that I help my clients perform at their peak—sleep deprived or not. Recently I met with Dr. Jessica Payne, Cognitive Neuroscientist & Assistant Professor at Notre Dame. Payne specializes in sleep and how it affects stamina and our ability to perform. Here’s what I learned.
The State of Sleep–Worldwide
The amount of sleep you need is highly personal, and ranges between 4 and 12 hours per night, although the average is 8. Most of us fall asleep within about 20 minutes. During the first part of the nightly sleep cycle is where, we get most of our Slow Wave Sleep, which is deep, physically rejuvenating, and hard to wake up from.
Next we enter Rapid Eye Movement, or REM sleep, which is where we make mental connections, are most creative, and process plus regulate emotions. Those of you that have attended my firm’s trainings will remember our request to review your notes right before bed. Doing so gives your sleeping brain a “project” to work on, and our clients find they retain up to 40% more of our leadership training material when they review right before bed. Why? Because during Slow Wave Sleep you consolidate many of your most important memories, and during REM your brain is almost as active as when you are awake.
REM sleep is the time of night when your Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex, your executive command center is deactivated—meaning you are now wildly creative and open to all possibilities. This fabulous REM state dominates the latter part of your nightly sleep cycle… then you wake up.
We need both SWS and REM for the proverbial “good night’s sleep.” Yet our REM state gets short-changed when we have to wake up too soon—and what I call REM Rip Off occurs. And this, my friends, is where the trouble begins.
What Happens When Your REM is Ripped Off
Here are the signs of REM Rip Off: irritability, excessive focus on the negative/inability to see the positive/glass half empty/general crabbiness and less ability to enjoy life.
Why? Because your Hippocampus and Anterior Cingulate Cortex (part of the Prefrontal Cortex where creativity, planning, problem solving, innovation reside) are more active during REM. These essential parts of your brain put the brakes on, and regulate, emotions. So in REM Rip Off, these parts of the brain can’t do their job very well. The result is your Amygdala becomes overactive (since the emotional brakes aren’t on) and you’re more grumpy, unhappy and prone to only remembering the negative.
A full night’s sleep improves your ability to regulate emotions. Period.
The Solution = Stamina Boosters
Here are three strategies:
1-Get 20 More Minutes Sleep
Payne suggests that adding a mere 20 minutes more sleep per night can boost performance at work 2-3 times. Wow. How can you get 20 more minutes? Go to bed earlier, sleep later, take a 20 minute power nap, or perhaps even use what she calls a “sleep proxy” (mindfulness practice/meditation, reflective walking or another offline period during restful wakefulness). A 10-20 minute nap is tremendously effective too–just be sure to stop at 20 minutes to avoid sliding into Slow Wave Sleep (where you’re in deep sleep and will feel groggy upon waking).
Chronic stress results in your body cranking out cortisol, which is toxic to brain cells. Excessive stress may also shrink your Hippocampus and make your Amygdala hyperactive (grrrrrr). In escalated stress we focus on negative memories too. One solution is to activate your parasympathetic system with a 5 minute visualization or relaxation exercise, short walk, burst of exercise, or breathing exercises. All are likely to build neural tissue.
3-Boost Positive Emotions
More positive emotions will boost your stamina too. Watching funny movies, frequent laughter, doing nice things for others, all help. Here’s a quick way to forge a positive neural pathway around gratitude. Just in time for Thanksgiving, here’s the Gratitude Process we share with our clients:
Close your eyes. Focus on a blessing in your life… something you are thankful for. See an image of this blessing in your mind’s eye. Offer a silent “thank you” to the person or object of your blessing. Relax into the feeling of gratitude. Take a deep breath. Feel more gratitude.
Brain research (from UCLA) shows that six doses of feeling 30 seconds of gratitude daily (a whopping 3 minutes!) will enable your neurons to fire together and wire together around gratitude within a mere 2 weeks. This means you’ll more easily and frequently access the feeling of gratitude.
I did this process for 2 weeks and found I was internally saying “thank you” as I awoke each morning. So if you must be sleep deprived, use one of Payne’s strategies above, and bask in the benefits.
Happy Thanksgiving! Here’s my gift to you: a 6 minute video with a visualization + gratitude process combined. I am grateful to share my life with inspiring leaders like you.
Christine Comaford is a neuroscience-based executive coach who helps leaders navigate growth and change. Learn more from her New York Times Bestseller SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together.