I was lying in bed reading last night, and an article in the Washington Post caught my eye-- it was about how most Americans these days are sleep-deprived. There are many reasons the article gave, and I thought of a few others. For adults, we are often expected to take work home with us: there are projects we need to finish, or preparations we need to make before a morning meeting or a class. There are emails and messages we feel we have to answer; social media posts to catch up on; and for many of us, commutes are getting longer and we have to get up earlier to make sure we're at work on time. For students, there is homework to do or reports to write (the assignments they've often left till the last minute); and let's be honest-- even if parents try to prevent it, many kids stay up too late chatting online with friends or playing video games. And a word should also be said about those of us with health issues-- sometimes, we're in a lot of pain, and that too can keep us from falling asleep.
And one other factor the Washington Post article didn't mention: many
people are having trouble sleeping due to worry or insecurity. During
the recent government shutdown, many politicians (especially those who are
wealthy) seemed surprised that large numbers of Americans are
living paycheck to paycheck. No, most of them aren't wasting
money on stuff they don't need. The problem is how expensive daily life has become in many cities: rents have sky-rocketed and
affordable housing is in short supply; medicines are outrageously priced
(with little competition to bring prices down); and unskilled or semi-skilled workers
are barely able to keep up with how much groceries cost. In addition, even people who make a good salary can be driven into debt by an unexpected crisis
(like a car accident, hospitalization, or... 35 days without a
But whatever the reason for the lack of sleep, it's a national dilemma. Kids are coming into early morning classes so sleepy that they're dozing off in class (which never makes their teachers very happy). Adults are feeling more stressed and more exhausted (and making more mistakes as a result). As many reputable medical sites point out, lack of sleep can lead to accidents (drowsy drivers get into car crashes more frequently than those who are not half-asleep); it can lead to being less effective at work (if you're feeling drowsy, you are probably not mentally sharp); it can even lead to medical conditions like high blood pressure. And the less sleep a person gets, the more likely they are to feel anxious, impatient, or short-tempered.
In 1942, the average person got about 7 and 1/2 hours of sleep a night. These days, surveys show that large numbers of folks are living on 5 to 6 hours; some even get less than that. There are relaxation techniques that sleep experts suggest, which work for some people-- though not for everyone. The experts also say you shouldn't keep your devices in your bedroom, where you'll be tempted to stay awake and use them. I've also read about various changes in diet that are supposed to help, like limiting alcohol or caffeine or sugar. But frankly, I think this is a cultural issue-- until we as a society make getting enough rest a priority, I doubt much will change. As long as too many of us feel constantly pressured, as long as we feel we have to cram so much activity into so few hours, folks will continue walking around exhausted. I'm one of them, and I'd be interested in what others are doing to deal with this very real problem.