'Everyone I know is always tired...' a young woman told me recently. It's a pervasive sentiment. I've even seen a funny (not funny) greeting card about it. Many of us are struggling with our own version of feeling relentlessly tired. While it's common, it doesn't mean it's normal.
There are many causes of fatigue* and lack of sleep can be a big factor. If you're fed up with feeling tired, checking your sleep is a great place to start.
Understanding your sleep will help you identify what you can do to improve it. So you have a better chance of regularly waking up feeling rested, refreshed, and revitalised. Let's shed some light on the most fundamental ways sleep can be challenged, so you can clarify what's going on for you.
Tiredness may be due to low sleep duration, where you are not getting enough sleep. Or it might be poor sleep quality that has you dragging yourself through the day. While most people think about the number of hours of sleep they're getting (or not getting), it's also worth considering your sleep quality. What's been happening with your sleep continuity? Are you struggling with fragmented sleep, where you wake frequently or feel like sleep is really patchy? What about the depth of your sleep? Does your sleep seem deep and restorative, or is it so light, you're borderline awake for most of the night?
When thinking about inadequate sleep, I find it helpful to make a distinction between sleep deprivation and sleep deficiency.
Am I sleep-deprived?
We live in a culture where you get kudos for being busy and leading a full-on life. FOMO places pressure on us to keep saying 'yes', and embracing it all even when our bodies feel depleted and are crying out for rest. There can be an unspoken 'sleep when you're dead' mentality.
Some people are tired because they haven't given (or been able to give) their bodies sufficient time for sleep. They've been living life to the brim into the small hours of the morning, pulling all-nighters or getting up before the dawn (whether by choice or circumstance). Their bed-times and wake-times can be all over the show, but there's a definite tendency to spend way more than two-thirds of their time out of bed. These people are experiencing sleep-deprivation.
They're not allowing themselves sufficient opportunity for sleep. Sound familiar? The first step is to prioritise sleep and work out realistically how to consistently get more hours in bed each night. This way, your body will routinely have more time available for sleeping. It sounds simple, but it can be a challenge with many demands and options calling on your time.
If you're keen to re-prioritise sleep, chapter 7, of my book, Sleep Easy, might help. You'll find a handy summary of the short and long term risks of under-sleeping and more importantly, the upsides to improving your sleep. You need to find a reason that genuinely motivates you to unbusy your days, and allows plenty of time for shuteye at night.
Am I sleep-deficient?
If you're committed to sleep, super-aware of its importance, and allow yourself plenty of time for shuteye, but simply 'can't sleep' or can't rely on your sleep - that's different. If despite your best efforts, you have problems getting to sleep or staying asleep, or the quality of your sleep is sketchy, you are experiencing sleep deficiency.
If it's a sleep deficiency, you give your body plenty of opportunity to sleep. Still, there's not a lot of satisfying sleep occurring. Instead, there's a psychedelic collection of tossing and turning, clock-watching, staring at the ceiling, mind-racing, night-maths, ruminating and catastrophising about the day ahead. It can feel relentless and unpredictable. You may even get up in the morning, feeling more exhausted than when you went to bed. Not fun.
Often sleep-deficient people are very motivated to help themselves, take all sorts of advice and try many initiatives to manage the situation. Yet 'nothing seems to work' or provide a lasting solution. This can be incredibly frustrating and can undermine their confidence in their bodies' ability to sleep.
When is it time to 'call time' on tiredness from sleep deficiency?
The occasional bout of sleeplessness is a normal physiological response to a stressful or exciting event in your life. But, when sleep difficulties continue or come and go unpredictably for weeks or months (even years), it's really not sustainable. This seeming inability to sleep can wear you down, taking its toll on physical health, productivity, and emotional well-being.
When you're experiencing sleeplessness multiple nights a week, for weeks or more (even if it's off and on), and it's causing distress or affecting your daytime functioning, it's time to take action. What's tricky is that it's common to suffer in silence, with only those closest knowing your struggles. Sleep loss can sneak up on us. We can be adept at gradually learning to live with sleep debt and tolerating its effects. You may not recognise it as a real concern until it's severe, has been going on for a long time, or it's affecting your physical health or emotional well being.
When you find yourself wrestling with ongoing tiredness, and you know sleep is a factor, it's essential to take action. Find out what's behind your particular sleep difficulties and get guidance on what you can do to make progress with your sleep. The Sleep Easy book is an excellent place to start if you're ready to call time on tiredness from sleep-deficiency.
Take care of yourself and your sleep,
*If you're experiencing ongoing or unexplained fatigue, it's always worth seeking help from your healthcare professional.