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How Sleep Makes You More Resilient

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/ June 10, 2021
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Everyone’s talking about resilience these days, particularly during a year in which many of us had to strengthen our emotional resilience in the face of a global pandemic that affected our lives in so many ways.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn—this is a sleep health blog, after all—that sleep plays an outsize role in making, and keeping, people resilient. Let’s take a look at how and what that means.

What does resilience mean?

What is resilience, exactly? Psychologists define resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress. Those can be family and relationship problems, serious health issues, or workplace and financial stressors. In short, resilience is about rebounding—bouncing back—after a difficult experience. 

While a lot of attention is focused on post-traumatic stress disorder, it’s important to point out that most people who experience trauma do not develop PTSD. Instead, most of us eventually move past the trauma, and many people even experience what is known as post-traumatic growth

Psychologists define resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress. Those can be family and relationship problems, serious health issues, or workplace and financial stressors. In short, resilience is about rebounding—bouncing back—after a difficult experience. 

This theory, developed in the mid-1990s by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, holds that people who endure psychological struggle following adversity can often see positive growth afterward. 

"People develop new understandings of themselves, the world they live in, how to relate to other people, the kind of future they might have, and a better understanding of how to live life," says Tedeschi.

Being resilient doesn’t mean you won’t experience hard times or stress. What it does mean is that you've developed—and can teach others to develop—behaviors, thoughts, and actions that help you face and pull through future challenges.

How sleep affects resilience

Sleep is the foundation of good health and peak functioning. We kid only ourselves if we believe getting less than the recommended seven to nine hours of nightly sleep will let us be our best. 

Regularly short-changing your body’s sleep needs has a cumulative effect that you can’t undo simply by sleeping in on the weekends. Chronic sleep deprivation puts people at a much higher risk for such serious diseases as Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.

Neuroscientist and sleep expert Matthew Walker points out in his book Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, that there are two primary ways sleep impacts resilience: Good sleep is essential for learning and processing new information, and sleep is essential for emotional regulation, an important aspect of resilience in that it helps prevent extreme emotional swings.

“Sleep is essential for our long-term physical resilience against disease as well as our everyday resilience,” says Marcus O'Donnell, associate professor at Deakin University, in Melbourne, Australia. “It enables us to learn and process our learning, and enables us to find that balance between emotional reaction and careful decision making.”

Sophie Bostock, health psychologist at University College, London, calls herself the “Sleep Evangelist.” She minces no words when it comes to the essential role of sleep in resilience. “Expecting improvements in mental resilience without first addressing lack of sleep is a pretty tall order,” she says.

"Sleep is essential for our long-term physical resilience against disease as well as our everyday resilience.”

Bostock defines these core components, or building blocks, of resilience:

  • The ability to manage strong emotions and impulses
  • Supportive and caring relationships
  • Being able to make realistic plans and carry them out
  • Problem-solving skills
  • A positive view of yourself and optimism for the future

“On the spectrum of resilience to vulnerability,” says Bostock, “poor sleep puts you firmly in the most vulnerable category.” 

A good night’s sleep, on the other hand, helps put stressors into perspective and keep you resilient. “Better sleep means lower stress, less worry, and more upbeat mood,” says Bostock. “At work, this means more energy, greater engagement, higher productivity—and all the ingredients of greater resilience.”

Tips for building resilience

The good news about sleep and resilience is that, as Bostock puts it, “the relationship between stress and sleep goes both ways; improve sleep, and those building blocks of resilience start to rebuild your mental shield against stress.”

As the American Psychological Association (APA) notes in an article on Building Your Resilience, “Like building a muscle, increasing your resilience takes time and intentionality.”

The APA suggests focusing on these main strategies:

  • Build your connections. Prioritize relationships and connecting genuinely with people who care about you, in one-on-one relationships and supportive groups.
  • Foster wellness with self-care. This can include promoting such positive lifestyle factors as proper nutrition, ample sleep, hydration, regular exercise, and practicing mindfulness. Avoid masking your pain with alcohol, drugs, or other substances that are like putting a bandage on a deep wound.
  • Find purpose. Help others, be proactive in your own life, move toward your goals, and look for opportunities for self-discovery.
  • Embrace healthy thoughts. Try to identify problematic ways of thinking—such as a tendency to catastrophize your difficulties or assume the world is out to get you—and adopt a more balanced and realistic way of thinking by accepting change and maintaining a hopeful outlook.
  • Seek help when you need it. A licensed mental health professional, such as a psychologist or licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) can assist you in developing an appropriate strategy for moving forward.

Resilience, or non-resilience, has a great deal to do with the choices we make—including the amount of sleep we choose to get. 

Carrie Wilkens, co-founder of the Center for Motivation and Change in New York City and the Berkshires, offers these tips for improving your sleep—even if you're stressed—and, by extension, building your resilience:

  • Avoid long naps (keep to 20-30 minutes max) and make your bedroom a cool, dark space.
  • Be consistent and develop healthy rituals or routines for sleep.
  • Get enough exercise. Even short periods of exercise in the morning can contribute to energy levels that support a well-regulated sleep cycle.
  • Remember to breathe!
  • Eat well. Keep the nutritional elements of your meals in mind to improve your immunity and health, and also add to your sense of taking charge of life where you can.

“The key thing to remember about resiliency,” says Wilkens, “is that it is not a personality trait that you either have or you don’t. It is buoyed and depleted by behaviors in one’s control.”

Check out these self-care strategies that can help tame your stress and ensure you get a good night's sleep.

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