Thursday, September 21, 2023

What If the Solution to Climate Change Is Just a Good Night’s Sleep?


Climate change is indeed a nightmare. Can a better sleep routine help?

“It was a day I’ve talked and written about dozens of times — the day I collapsed from sleep deprivation and exhaustion, broke my cheekbone and woke up in a pool of blood,” Ariana Huffington recalled in a blog post.

She’s talking about her own battle with sleep deprivation, but the issue is widespread. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as 1 in 3 adults in the U.S. reported not getting enough rest or sleep every day.

“For me, that day literally changed my life,” Huffington wrote. “It put me on a course in which I changed how I work and how I live.”

Courtesy Ketut Subiyanto | Pexels

The author and founder of Thrive Global has since made sleep and mental health her focus. Huffington aims to help us break our addiction to sleep deprivation and to foster work environments that support better sleep and better work-life balances.

The science is there, too. Regular sleep of at least six to eight hours every night is how we function best, experts say. Just the same as we need oxygen and water, we need this daily reset most urgently, some could argue, even more than we need food. We can go weeks without calories, but a few days without sleep is nothing short of deadly.

In fact, staying up just one full day without sleep affects focus and performance as much as having a blood-alcohol level of 0.10 percent (the blood-alcohol level considered legally drunk is 0.08 percent). And, because sleep deprivation impairs us so significantly so quickly, we’re at a greater risk of an accident that could put our lives or someone else’s at risk when we haven’t slept enough.

Sleep deprivation is also tied to increased risks of certain diseases including heart disease, stroke, dementia, and certain types of cancer. 

Pandemic sleep

Post-pandemic travelers are now even seeking out “sleep” wellness vacations. Even though we spent years at home, which, in theory, would make us all more rested, many of us are more exhausted than ever, even when we’re not getting up as early to commute.

There’s data that say stress actually makes us more tired than when we’re unstressed. If you doom-scrolled in those first few lockdown months until you passed out after midnight, or were stressing over loved ones, co-workers, or the general awfulness of a pandemic, you’re not alone.

And if you sheltered at home with children, your stress levels likely went through the roof trying to juggle work and school and home and some semblance of a line separating them all. We all went a little Bo Burnham Inside while inside. Needing some time away now to sleep “better” makes a bit of sense. Enter: the sleep retreat.

a woman asleep
Courtesy cottonbro | Pexels

“Hotels and wellness resorts are responding in turn, forging their own strategies to help travelers figure out how to fix their sleep schedules,” Debra Kamin writes for Conde Nast. “Not only are they doubling down on pre-pandemic offerings — like kitting out guest rooms with custom bedding and incorporating aromatherapy spa rituals into their slate of treatments — they’re also rolling out new programs specifically designed to soothe our pandemic-rattled psyche so that drifting off becomes a breeze.”

Kamin, also a parent, took a break, a “21-Day Perfect Balance Sabbatical,” at Baja California’s ​​Rancho La Puerta, where devices are not encouraged.

“I’ll admit it: I cheated, sneaking regular peeks at my WhatsApps and emails. But after a day with significantly less screen time, I slept more soundly than I have in months,” Kamin said. 

“The ranch’s philosophy is that sleep is connected to all aspects of wellness: physical, mental, and spiritual.”

Sleep and climate change? 

But what does our sleep hygiene have to do with the climate crisis, though? Turns out, it’s a lot more than we may think.

For starters, being overly tired makes us quicker to reach for support, and that’s typically not always the best kind. We may reach for substances or unhealthy food that come in single-serve, plastic containers. They add up, fast. We turn to devices and indulge in bad habits, and even drive more instead of considering other options, like biking or public transport because we’re too tired to do much else, even when the risk of accident is compounded by our lack of sleep.

But, more than that, when we’re exhausted, we’re in that fight or flight mode solely focused on our own survival. It’s difficult to think about the needs of the planet when we can’t even tend to our own. 

A 2018 study found those who slept better showed more empathy toward other people in distress than the group who had less sleep. Brain activity associated with emotions and empathy increased in those who slept better.

In other words, our brains can’t even comprehend the (global) distress of issues like climate change when we’re exhausted. It’s like our brains put up barricades to any other problems that could prevent us from attending to the most urgent one: sleep.

Courtesy Juan Pablo | Pexels

Another study found that a lack of sleep made subjects more likely to withdraw from social situations; subjects who slept better reported less loneliness. “A lack of sleep leads individuals to become more socially avoidant, keeping greater social distance from others,” the researchers concluded. Feeling like a part of society is critical in taking up causes like the climate crisis. 

Enough sleep is also associated with feeling less angry and less prejudiced toward others, another 2018 study found. Anger can be a normal response and even a motivator for doing good, particularly in relation to social justice and environmental issues, including the climate crisis.

But for sleep-deprived individuals, it can be tough to even get to the issues — navigating instead the mire of discomfort and frustration caused by a lack of sleep.

Does that mean we all need to unplug for three weeks and take a sabbatical? Not unless we want to. But what’s more important to consider is the role our collective sleeplessness is playing in our progress as a species — or, rather, the lack of it. 

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