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Sleep-Deprived Nation

The student who asked to see me looks exhausted. I’m used to sleepy students. It’s an occupational hazard of teaching the 8:30 a.m. class. But I’ve been worried about this young man for several weeks. He seems to be fighting especially hard to keep his head from hitting the desk during every class. Ironically, we’ve been covering sleep disorders in our psychology seminar and he sent me an urgent request for an appointment.

Now at my office in the late afternoon, he doesn’t look much better. “Were you serious that people sometimes feel so paralyzed when they wake up that they can’t move?” he asks. “Is it really true that people can hear voices just because they are sleep-deprived? How about seeing ghosts and spirits?”

“Yes. Yes. And yes,” I tell him. “Those are all symptoms of sleep disorders.” He lets out a big sigh. He seems very, very relieved. “I thought maybe I was going insane.”

My student’s sanity is not in question, at least not yet. However, his chronic insomnia is causing him more and more trouble. What he had thought were paranormal experiences or symptoms of mental illness are most likely a consequence of inadequate and frequently interrupted sleep. Untreated, his health, his ability to think clearly, and his capacity to make good judgments are likely to deteriorate.

He’s certainly not alone in his inability to get sufficient sleep. A recent study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 41 percent of Americans report that they have not had sufficient sleep for nearly 2 weeks of the past month. Only one third of adults report they get enough sleep every night. This doesn’t surprise me. My clients and my friends regularly report lack of sufficient sleep; sometimes with near-disastrous consequences. Stress, financial pressures, overuse of technology, (did I mention stress?) and the conventional wisdom that people don’t really need as much sleep as once was believed are all conspiring to increase our expectations for productivity and decrease our time relaxing, recovering, and sleeping.

One man I know–let’s call him Ted–awoke in his car as he was being shaken by a local police officer. He’d pulled into a driveway, thinking it was his own, and promptly fallen asleep. Alarmed by the presence of a strange car idling in their yard at 3 a.m., the homeowners had called the police. My friend had driven 100 miles to get home after a long day of meetings to avoid having to pay for a hotel room. He could have paid with his life – and the lives of others.

Trying to meet the demands of work and responsibilities to family sometimes makes people take chances. Alex drove 15 hours straight rather than stop for rest, pushing to get home in time for his daughter’s birthday. During the last hour, he kept seeing phantom vehicles bearing down on him, only to evaporate like mist. Freaked by the hallucinations and obsessed with getting home, he pushed on. Fortunately, he was traveling in the wee hours of the morning when few others were on the road. In a somber moment, he acknowledges that wrapping himself around a tree would not have been a wonderful birthday surprise for his daughter. But at the time, he’d been just stressing about getting home. He made it but, like Ted, it was more a matter of luck than skill that got him there.

Financial pressures sometimes make people give up on sleep. Ciel is a hardworking single mom who is doing her best both to support her kids and increase her prospects for a better job by going to school. She works third shift as an awake overnight staff member at a residential school for troubled teens. The overnighter pays better than day work and she can study when the residents are asleep. She gets off at 7:00 a.m., takes an 8:00 and a 9:30 college class and gets home at about 11:30. She sleeps until 3:30 when the kids come home. The hours from 3:30 to 7:30 are dedicated to doing household chores, having dinner with her children, and getting them started on homework. If she’s lucky, she fits in another nap from 8:00 – 10:00. She is getting only about 6 hours in a 24-hour period and that 6 hours is neither continuous nor predictable. If a child is home sick, if a school project requires more mom-time to get done, if she’s behind on laundry, she often sacrifices even more hours of sleep. Her persistence in both meeting her goals and being there for her kids is admirable. But the quality of her work, her parenting, and her life in general suffers. Not too surprisingly, she collapsed during the holidays and ended up in a hospital for acute exhaustion. She slept for the first 26 hours of her hospital stay!

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Technology can also be blamed for disrupting our sleep. The constant input of emails, texts, and social networking, video and online games, and TV on demand, all the time, puts the brain into a constant active state. A brain that’s wired up has difficulty settling down when it’s time to sleep. Often enough, a person who tosses and turns trying to get to sleep gives up – and goes back to the computer! So much for quieting the unquiet mind!

For these many reasons, the average American is getting slightly more than six and a half hours of sleep a night. That’s a drop from an average of eight hours a night 50 – 100 years ago. Although it is true that not everyone needs the same amount of sleep, most of us do need 8 – 9 hours of rest. The reduction of over an hour on average means that many people are losing almost a complete cycle of restorative sleep.

The result is the increase of sleep disorders and related illness. More and more people are showing up in clinical offices with symptoms of narcolepsy, sleep paralysis, night terrors, sleep phase disorders, or chronic insomnia. Often psychiatric disorders like depression and anxiety are secondary to insufficient sleep, as are medical diseases like hypertension, high cholesterol, and diabetes.

Like my student, many people are in denial about the impact of their sleep habits on their general health and wellbeing or have resigned themselves to a pattern of inadequate sleep. Others have convinced themselves that they really don’t need more than 5 or 6 hours of sleep to be at their best and scold themselves for being tired. Still others have developed dependence on over-the-counter sleep aids or think that getting extra sleep on the weekends compensates for inadequate sleep during the week.

Nightly restorative sleep is essential to wellbeing, productivity, and creativity. If you are among the millions of people who are simply depriving themselves of rest, give yourself the gift of a good night’s sleep. If you’ve developed a sleep disorder, a visit to a sleep clinic or to a clinician trained in treating sleep disorders can result in a plan for re-establishing healthful and restorative sleep. Ah – to sleep. More important: To sleep enough. It’s what the body and mind really needs.

Sleep-Deprived Nation

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Sleep-Deprived Nation. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.