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Restful Sleep: The Foundation of Occupational Therapy

Posted by Brian Spence on Mar 15, 2019 8:00:00 AM

Sleep Hygiene, Occupational Therapy, OTOccupational therapists focus on five components of a healthy life: cognitive, physical, sensory, psychological, and spiritual. These five areas, when everything is balanced and aligned, form the pillars of our everyday functioning. Our ability to manage what life throws at us depends heavily on our ability to get a good night's sleep. When you're sleep deprived, many of the key elements of your life are impacted.

For example, if you walk to work, you must be able to coordinate the physical and sensory aspects of knowing where to put your feet, the cognitive requirements to remember to look both ways when you cross the street, and the psychological and spiritual motivation to feel fulfilled in your job. Sleep deprivation makes it difficult to maintain each of these components, which can lead to a host of challenges.

How Culture Contributes

Today's culture of endless work and busy social lives leaves little room for sleep, unless you make it a priority. Students can be heard comparing how little sleep they get each night, and how many all-nighters they've pulled. Maybe you bring your work home with you at the end of the day because you just can't seem to leave it for tomorrow. Between work, school, family, social events, and exercise, it can feel like there simply aren't enough hours in the day. Sleep deprivation is so normalized that over a third of the US population of adults routinely get less than the recommended amount of sleep. In a culture that rewards strong work ethics, it can be tricky to find a balance between achievement and recharging.

Gardner and Tripp

You may have heard of two well-known cases of extreme sleep deprivation. Randy Gardner went a total of 11 days without sleep in 1964 in order to be recognized in the Guiness Book of World Records. Peter Tripp stayed awake for roughly 9 days in 1959 to raise money for the March of Dimes. Both Gardner and Tripp suffered increasingly severe effects of sleep deprivation, including irritability, memory loss, slurred speech, loss of coordination, hallucinations, and paranoia.

It can be easy to minimize small losses of sleep each night; after all, you're probably not in the habit of going several days without sleeping. But sleep researchers have found that small but chronic sleep deprivation can lead to significant sleep debt.

The Science of Sleep Deprivation

  1. Physiological Repair. Restful sleep encourages repair processes through increased blood flow to muscles.
  2. Memory. Short-term memories are consolidated into long-term memories while we sleep.
  3. Emotional Health. Sleep disorders such as insomnia may raise your risk of developing psychiatric illnesses.
  4. Sensory. Sleep/wake cycles help regulate the nervous system's processing of sensory information.

How Occupational Therapists See It

Anything that occupies your time is what occupational therapy addresses. While it usually focuses on the activities that fill our waking moments, occupational therapists view sleep as a prerequisite for all of the activities you engage in. If you're in occupational therapy for injuries, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Sensory Processing Disorder, or other difficulties that impact your functioning, sleep is an especially crucial foundation for the work you do with your OT. Every single one of us needs consistently restful sleep in order to carry out the necessities of life and to enjoy the fun parts of each day. Every person is unique, so although the sleep recommendation for adults is to get 7-9 hours of shut-eye each night, you may find that you do best with more or less than that.

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