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  • Writer's pictureTuba Buyuktepe

Psychological resilience and its physiological foundation of sleep

By: Tuba B.

Pre-pandemic mental health already showed a booming interest in stress relieving solutions such as mediation, mindfulness, therapy chatbots and digital therapy on apps. Within the last 2 years, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant effect on the mental health and wellbeing of much of the population. The world has changed permanently. Rates of depression, anxiety, loneliness, suicidal ideation, and other mental health concerns increased during the first year of the pandemic, with heightened fears of the virus, social isolation, and economic instability. Every single individual has been affected by a plethora of events that otherwise would not have occurred in a COVID-less world.

Resilience remains a key factor in sustaining healthy emotional functioning during crises and facilitating rapid recovery as we move forward to build a better post-pandemic world. One of the best ways to decrease stress and increase resilience is free, painless, requires little effort, and can be done from the comfort of your own home. It’s not a marketing tactic nor a passing fad. The answer to less stress, higher resilience, better brain function, and improved wellness is 7-9 hours of quality sleep—every night.

Wait, what is Resilience?

Resilience is the ability to move forward and adapt to difficult or challenging life experiences.. It’s a valuable trait to help withstand adversity and bounce back and grow despite life’s downturns. Being resilient requires a skill set that you can work on and grow over time.

How Sleep Unlocks Resilience

Sleep is a period during which the brain is engaged in a number of activities necessary to life—which are closely linked to quality of life.

Sleep helps an individual adapt to negative environmental influences. An increased rate of neuronal development in the brain of the resilient individual shields them from damage caused by environmental stressors.

Along with physical health factors such as heightened immunity and lowered risk for cancer and heart disease, sleep contributes to improved:

  • Memory

  • Decision-making

  • Concentration

  • Reasoning

  • Problem-solving

  • Reaction time

  • Alertness

Adequate sleep is required for all the functions needed for optimal job and school performance. Not getting enough sleep increases stress hormones and hinders decision-making and problem-solving to the point that drowsiness has similar symptoms to drunkenness. According to Statistics Canada, going too long without sleep can impair your ability to drive in the same way as drinking too much alcohol. Staying awake for at least 24 hours is equal to having a blood alcohol content of 0.10%, which would earn you a penalty for impaired driving in Ontario.

Sleep is the brain’s housekeeping mechanism. It removes toxins and waste, while helping with “neuroplasticity.” Neuroplasticity is the brain’s “ability to adapt to input.” Sleep enhances neuronal plasticity while sleep loss reduces it. Synaptic connections are controlled during deep sleep stages to a sustainable baseline energy level through the downscaling of synaptic strength via low frequency, high amplitude, synchronized neural firing. This maintains neural plasticity for new environments, leaves physical space and neural energy for adaptations to new situations, and as a result maintains the individual’s capacity for learning and memory. Learning and memory are linked to resilience since resilience is the ability to adapt and recover easily in the face of misfortune or change. Learning, and sleep are important for the storage of new memories and, therefore, for learning skills necessary to adapt to a given environment. Neuroplasticity enables the brain to acquire new skills, change and adapt to stimuli, and ultimately learn new things. Without sufficient sleep, our brains can’t process new information and will struggle to recall the information in the future—two functions essential to adaptability and resilience.

Why Aren’t We Sleeping?

If you’re not sleep-deprived, you probably know someone who is. Statistics Canada estimates that 1 in 3 Canadians get less than seven hours of sleep each night—the bare minimum for adults. Sleep isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity.

“Hustle culture” has tried to downplay the importance of sleep. The “24/7 grind” mentality glamourizes tiredness from working late and implies that waking early is just something to push through. Some claim that they don’t “need” to catch as many ZZZ’s as everyone else, but research suggests that very few people—maybe just one in 1,000—can function effectively with less than 8 hours per night.

Consistent poor sleep can affect your resilience in a number of ways, including:

  • emotional imbalance

  • Being more prone to conflict

  • Lack of empathy

  • Poor impulse control

  • More potential for risky behavior

  • Negativity bias—more focus on negative events than positive— lower optimism or reduced self-esteem

  • Lack of creativity

It is obvious that the role of sleep in learning and memory is an active factor in determining the individual’s level of resilience. Without adequate sleep, the brain rapidly declines in its capacity to process emotions and cope effectively with change. Neural plasticity becomes limited during periods of insufficient sleep, and it becomes difficult to identify effective solutions to life’s challenges. Sleep is a physiological process that is highly modifiable through small changes in behavior and other effective cognitive and lifestyle interventions. While sleep is not the totality of resilience, it is difficult/nearly impossible to remain optimally resilient when sleep is deficient. Increasing the regularity, duration, and quality of sleep will help restore and sustain the physiological foundation for resilience. As the pandemic subsides, psychological resilience is an essential to the recovery effort. Such resilience is built firmly on the physiological foundation provided by sufficient restorative sleep each night.


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