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Debunking 6 Sleep Myths

By Marcia Mangum Cronin

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Do you ever wake up feeling like you didn't get enough sleep—and you just know you're going to have a rough day?

Well, you may be just fine if you adjust your attitude.

Many things we accept as facts about sleep simply aren't true, says Steve Orma, PsyD, a former insomnia sufferer and San Francisco-based clinical psychologist specializing in anxiety and insomnia. In his book, Stop Worrying and Go to Sleep: How to Put Insomnia to Bed for Good, Orma debunks six common sleep myths:

Myth #1: Everyone needs eight hours of sleep.

Truth: Everyone's needs are different. Eight hours is just an average. On the extreme end, there are "short sleepers," who may only need four hours of sleep a night. Thomas Edison was a famous short sleeper—and he functioned just fine with less than eight hours sleep. When people get anxious about not getting eight hours of sleep, worry then interrupts their sleep and can cause insomnia. Learn how much sleep you need and aim for that amount, Orma advises. Keeping a sleep journal can help you determine how much you need. It may be eight or nine hours or it may be six or seven. Don't assume it's eight.

Myth #2: If you don't sleep well, you won't be able to function the next day.

Truth: Even after a poor night's sleep, you can usually function just as well or nearly as well as with a good night's sleep. You increase your anxiety when you start thinking thoughts like, "I better get a good night's sleep or I'll feel miserable tomorrow and may not be able to go to work or do a good job and I could even get fired." Research with groups that don't always get great sleep—such as students, medical residents, sailors and astronauts—finds that they function as well on about 5½ hours of sleep as they do with eight. Five and a half hours provides the core sleep needed for restorative deep sleep. That's true even if you wake several times—it doesn't have to be "solid sleep." If you don't sleep well, you may feel bad emotionally and be grouchy, Orma says, but you can still be alert and functioning.

Myth #3: Insomnia causes depression and anxiety. Or the other way around: Anxiety and depression cause insomnia.

Truth: This one is not true—either way, Orma says. If you develop insomnia, it may affect your mood and may make you feel bad or sad. But that's different from causing clinical depression. The other way around is true, too: If you're depressed or anxious, it may make you more likely to have insomnia, but it doesn't cause it. And, if you're depressed and don't get enough sleep, you may feel worse, because it affects the systems of your body. But insomnia and depression are different things.

Myth #4. If you feel tired in the morning, it's because you didn't sleep enough.

Truth: Many times, if someone wakes up feeling bad, they blame it on lack of sleep. But sometimes the problem lies elsewhere. It could be chronic stress, a physical ailment, medications or even a bad habit. Some people drink alcohol to help them sleep, particularly when they develop sleep problems, Orma notes. A glass of wine with dinner is fine, especially if it's a few hours before sleep. But if you drink several drinks—enough to knock you out at night—you'll wake feeling bad because of the alcohol. If you're getting your full requirement of sleep and still wake feeling tired, you may want to look at what else is going on. Consider whether you need a vacation, more time to wind down, better stress relief or less alcohol.

Myth #5. Your daytime functioning is dependent solely on how you sleep.

Truth: Even if you feel well rested in the morning, you still could function poorly. There are other factors, such as your general physical health. "If you're in good health, you're going to have more energy, you're going to focus better, and you've got more stamina," Orma says. "That's separate from how well you slept." Someone who doesn't take care of herself may not function very well, even with a good night's sleep. Factors like medications, medical conditions, depression, alcohol and drugs can affect functioning. To stay healthy and function well, you need to look at everything you're doing with your body—physically, mentally and emotionally. Sleep is one vital component, but not the only one. 

Myth #6. How you feel during the day is purely a physical issue.

Truth: How you feel emotionally doesn't depend totally on how well you sleep. Your expectations greatly influence how you will feel and function. For example, if you get a poor night's sleep and start worrying that you won't perform well at work, then that worry can create anxiety and influence your feelings and performance all day. However, if you know you didn't sleep well, but you tell yourself that you'll be fine and able to function and will probably sleep better the next night because your body needs it, then those positive expectations will help you feel better all day. "We're not just a body," Orma says. "We also have a mind. Sleep is important for our body, but how we think during the day will have a profound effect, not only on how we feel emotionally, but on our performance and our behavior."