The Psychopathology of Sleep

It seems one can really add the prefix “psycho” to everything. I’ve heard of psychobiology, psychoanalysis and psychosocial, and now we encounter psychopathology. Well, anything with the word “psycho” in it is sure to talk about the mind, which is just right for today. I’m going to talk about something we’re all most interested in, sleep.

Now sleep, to the personal viewpoint of a layman like me, is something we all have mixed feelings towards. Everybody wishes we don’t need as much sleep as we do, and yet we can’t deny that sleep does make us feel good. We hate going to sleep, but we hate waking up from it even more. I remember back in junior college I heard about certain genes that make a person survive comfortably on only 4 hours of sleep a day. Many people were envious, but I wasn’t, and still am. I consider sleep a luxury, much like food. I wish I didn’t need food, so that I won’t waste time eating and won’t suffer the ill effects of getting fat too, but eating gives off pleasant hormones in our brain and makes us happy. In the same way, sleep keeps us feeling relaxed and rested.

Now onto the psychological part of this. We think that sleep helps us to conserve energy, but the truth is that it only decreases metabolism by about 5% to 10%. Even hibernating animals have to have periods of sleep too, and have to return their body temperatures to healthy non-hibernating levels in order to enter sleep mode, which makes sleep actually very energetically expensive.

We may know that there are 4 stages of sleep: non-Rapid Eye Movement stage 1, 2, 3 and REM. Each stage has a distinct physiological function so if we haven’t gone through all 4 stages while sleeping, we may face the experience of having slept but still feeling tired when we wake up. Studies have shown that the stage of sleep that we’re in when awakening is a factor in amplifying sleep inertia, which is the decline in motor dexterity and the grogginess we feel when we awaken, and wanting to return to sleep. This impaired alertness may interfere with our ability to perform mental or physical tasks. This is why waking up naturally is always preferable to being awakened abruptly by an alarm clock! Sufficient sleep will of course help in this respect, and also the timing of sleep is important too. Waking during a drop in body temperature (such as at night) tends to produce more sleep inertia. However, chemicals such as caffeine can suppress the effects of sleep inertia, which may explain why people like to drink coffee in the mornings.

I think most of us have had experiences that are or are close to sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis can be a scary thing where people temporarily experience an inability to move. It can occur when people are falling asleep or awakening, and is often associated with terrifying visions to which they cannot react due to paralysis. It is believed to be the result of disrupted REM sleep. My mother once told me a rumour that one is not supposed to shock a person who is in deep sleep, because his soul may be scared off and not return to the body. This may be related to sleep paralysis.

If you want to prevent sleep paralysis, the main thing to do is to not sleep in the supine position! The supine position is basically sleeping on one’s back facing up. This is likely because it is possible for the soft palate to collapse and obstruct the airway, giving the impression of a “ghost pressing down on your body”. Other solutions are to have regular sleep patterns and avoid stress in your life, and also not to overuse stimulants.

Sleep can be such rewarding behaviour, and yet it can pose dangerous results if we don’t have enough of it. The trend of the new generation is the decreasing amount of sleep we have, and I highly encourage all of you to sleep for at least 7 hours, as I try to do!

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