Sleep and performance disturbances. How the quality of rest can affect psychological well-being

Almost one in three Italians sleep an insufficient number of hours (less than 7) and one in seven reports an unsatisfactory quality of their sleep. This is the scenario described by a research conducted in 2022 by the Istituto Superiore di Sanità.

With the pandemic emergency the situation has not improved.

A study conducted online during the first two weeks of the 2022 lockdown found that six out of ten people reported poor sleep quality.

During this year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the quantity and quality of sleep have been negatively affected by social distancing, health concerns about oneself and loved ones, work done from home without having time for a adequate preparation, from the increase in economic insecurity. Data from various studies conducted at national and international level have reported the presence of real sleep disorders in 30% of the population.

Why should this data not be underestimated? How does sleep affect (and is affected by) psychological well-being and work performance? What can be done to prevent sleep disorders and find a good balance?

Sleep, psychological well-being and performance: a dynamic balance

Sleep is one of the primary functions , so much so that deprivation conditions have well-known harmful effects on health both from a physical point of view (with an increase in the probability of developing conditions such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and stroke) and psychological. The quality of sleep is one of the most significant markers of psychological well-being and is fundamental for the regulation of mood and the immune system and for school and work performance.

The one between sleep and psychological well-being is therefore a reciprocal dynamic. The quality and quantity of sleep affect mood, attention and concentration during study and work, openness and availability towards family and colleagues. At the same time, anxiety and depression, conflicts or lack of relationships, worries at work have an impact on how and how much you sleep.

Our biological clock

We have a biological clock that regulates sleep-wake rhythms and tells us when it’s time to go to sleep and when it’s time to wake up. This internal mechanism works effectively but is also, and largely, influenced by a number of external factors.Nutrition, stress, exercise, irregularity in bedtime and wake-up times (for example following work shifts), activities before bedtime, stress, diet, exercise, organic disorders or taking medications . For example, exposing yourself to pandemic information overload from the media late into the evening can negatively impact sleep quality. Sometimes, even the solutions that are used only aggravate the problem. Many people who wake up at 4am start watching social media channels to try and fall back asleep although this is an activity that actually activates the brain and can even put it on alert.

The dysfunction of the sleep-wake rhythm manifests itself in several ways. Sleep disorders include insomnia, difficulty falling asleep when it is time to go to sleep or stay asleep, early awakening or a tendency to not be able to wake up in the morning (hypersomnia), difficulty staying awake during the day with sudden falls asleep .

Sleep disturbances and work performance

Work performance is significantly affected by sleep-related problems. For example, fatigue due to insufficient sleep or poor sleep quality:

  • slows reaction times and decreases the accuracy with which both physical and mental tasks are carried out.
  • The risk of accidents in the workplace increases : some studies report a 60% higher probability of accidents in the workplace following a high presence of sleep disorders.
  • Contributes to lost productivity and lost working days : People suffering from mild insomnia report 58% more lost productivity.

What strategies to adopt to protect the quality of sleep?

Is it possible to restore a state of balance and efficiency of the mechanisms that guarantee a good quality of sleep, thus avoiding an increased risk of developing chronic diseases and accidents at home, on the road, at work and in relationships? What are the rules of good sleep and the strategies for dealing with any disorders?

Strategy # 1. “Ordinary maintenance” practices.

A bit like brushing your teeth is a good hygiene practice to avoid having problems, even for sleep there are rules and habits that can be useful to follow, even for preventive purposes:

  • exercise (but not intense in the evening).
  • Spending time outdoors during the day (possibly in contact with nature by taking a walk in a park).
  • Avoid foods and drinks (such as those that contain caffeine or alcohol) that can interfere with sleep.
  • Make sure as much as possible that the environmental conditions (bed, mattress, temperature) favor the quality of sleep.
  • Go to bed and, more importantly, wake up at regular times.
  • Limit the use of tablets, computers and smartphones a couple of hours before bedtime.
  • Eat at least two to three hours before bedtime.
  • Avoid the load of information and news in the evening hours (especially at this time and always selecting authoritative sources).

Strategy # 2. Quiet practices.

Adopting behaviors that are functional is not always easy: who is not tempted to let the autoplay start, one after the other, the episodes of the series we are passionate about? It is therefore necessary to identify alternative activities that can bring our body to a state of calm, focus and stillness that will facilitate falling asleep and sleeping throughout the night.

What solutions can then come to our aid? In general, it is useful to dedicate time to activities that allow to decrease the activation of the sympathetic nervous system (which is activated autonomously when we need to mobilize our organism) in favor of the parasympathetic one (which starts a series of physiological changes that bring the organism into a state of rest). Some of these are:

  • Meditation (before going to bed but also at other times of the day).
  • Compiling a gratitude journal (making a list of everyday things to be grateful for: a phone call with a friend, a gesture of kindness, a beautiful sunset).
  • Reading (favoring it over watching movies and series and as an alternative to spending many hours in front of the screen).

Strategy # 3. Contact a professional.

When “maintenance practices” and strategies to trigger a state of calm are not enough, it is useful to talk to your doctor and consult a psychologistwho will be able to evaluate in depth what are the emotional and behavioral causes that contribute to sleep disorders and will develop a “tailor-made” program. The psychological intervention includes an investigation on lifestyles, an educational component on habits that preserve the quality of sleep, the development of a greater awareness of one’s emotions and the definition of strategies to make a concrete change in lifestyle in order to to improve sleep quality. The techniques often used for the management of sleep disorders are relaxation training, visualization techniques, clinical hypnosis.

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