Sleep Deprivation Derails Self-Control

Sleep deprivation can have devastating effects in your life. There are two forms of sleep deprivation. One is acute sleep deprivation from not sleeping at all for one or more nights. The other type is chronic sleep deprivation, which often lasts for a long time. Chronic sleep deprivation comes from repeatedly not getting the amount of sleep your mind and body need.

Adults need between 7 and 9 hours and teenagers need between 8 and 10 hours of sleep each night. Many people believe they can make up for inadequate sleep during the workweek by sleeping in on the weekend, but sleep researchers say it isn’t that easy. Repeatedly getting inadequate sleep creates a sleep deficit that cannot be recovered quickly.

In this article, we will discuss various areas of your life where sleep deprivation can lead to undesirable results.

Can Sleep Deprivation Effect Self-Control Resources?

Researchers followed 51 participants for five days and four nights in a sleep study center. The participants had a good night’s sleep the first night, complete sleep deprivation on the 2nd night, followed by two nights of adequate rest. Using fMRI brain scans and applying brain small-world network and global brain network theories, after two full nights of sleep, the global brain networks returned to baseline, but the brain small-world network was still impaired. The small-world brain network affects behavior, short-term memory, and cognitive abilities including areas involving self-control.

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Prevalence of Sleep Deprivation

Insufficient sleep is a public health epidemic. – Center for Disease Control (CDC)

An average of 35.2% of American adults experience sleep deprivation but, in some areas, the prevalence is much higher. Nearly 60% of adults reported experiencing sleep deprivation in numerous locations. When you consider the self-control deficits sleep deprivation can cause, these high rates are disconcerting.

Sleep Deprivation Derails Self-Control

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Sleep Deprivation and Behavior

One way that sleep deprivation affects behavior is through lack of attention. Researchers have found that perseveration of thought declines with sleep deprivation. Have you ever had good intentions of exercising or resisting the temptation to eat something that isn’t part of your diet and then, almost in a daze, you find yourself eating the thing you planned not to eat or letting time pass until it is too late to exercise as you’d planned? This is an example of failing to preserve your thought and it may be due to sleep deprivation.

Sleep Deprivation and BehaviorSleep deprivation can make your mind foggy. When you lose your focus on your goals, it becomes a lot easier not to do things you wanted to do or to do things you didn’t want to or didn’t plan to do.

This can lead to unhealthy beliefs about yourself if you mistakenly chalk your behavior up to a moral willpower failure instead of recognizing that sleep deprivation interfered with your self-control. If you see it as a global problem, it is likely to become an ongoing problem – creating a Nocebo Effect. It can also create an inner critic that derails your success by reminding you of your failures. Recognizing the effect of sleep deprivation on your behavior will help you not catastrophize your lack of self-control into global self-criticism and self-doubt.

If you’re sleep deprived, try to get more sleep and expect that you’ll do better when you’re well rested. In the following sections, we’ll explore areas where sleep deprivation is known to have an adverse effect on behaviors.

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Sleep Deprivation and Decision-Making

Many sleep deprived members of society, including many decision makers, are unaware of the extent of their sleep deprivation related impairments. While individuals who are experiencing total sleep deprivation are keenly aware that they are overly tired and impaired, those experiencing partial sleep deprivation are frequently unaware of their impairments or of how serious their sleep deficit has become.

In clinical tests, the cognitive performance of individuals whose sleep was restricted to six hours per night over a 2-week period was the same as that of individuals who experienced total sleep deprivation the prior night.

Sleep deprivation impairs cognitive functions that require the prefrontal cortex including:

  • Clear communication
  • Dealing with unexpected situations
  • Being innovative
  • Focusing when there are distractions
  • Making non-routine decisions
  • Emergency situations

Individuals who may be at risk for partial sleep deprivation could use actigraphy (watches that monitor sleep) to track the amount of sleep they are receiving so they can take corrective action to get more sleep if they are not getting enough sleep to function well.

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Sleep Deprivation and Crabbiness

If you find yourself being grouchy for no apparent reason, or you snap at your loved ones, co-workers, or your boss with a low ability to control your initial reaction, you may be suffering from sleep deprivation. In a study with fifteen healthy males who had suspected partial sleep deprivation that had created a sleep debt, questionnaires about their moods indicated crabbiness. fMRI studies of their brain showed heightened activity in the amygdala, the primitive part of the brain. The participants in this study then had nine nights with longer sleep during which their moods were monitored.

As they paid back the sleep debt by sleeping longer, their moods improved and activity in the amygdala reduced significantly. After nine nights of extended study, they were subjected to a night of total sleep deprivation and tested once again. After the night of total sleep deprivation, their moods and amygdala activity returned to a level very similar to the baseline levels when they had partial sleep deprivation.

One of the key factors about this study is that before the participants repaid their sleep debt, they did not realize that they were as sleep deprived as they would be if they had missed a full night’s sleep. The study shows that mild partial sleep deprivation is associated with a significant decline in mood. Heightened amygdala activity is also of concern because it makes it more likely that you will experience an amygdala hijack situation when you feel threatened.

An amygdala hijack is an immediate reaction involving strong emotions that lead to words or actions you regret later. Afterwards, people who experience an amygdala hijack often wonder what happened as it feels as if they lost control. During an amygdala hijack situation, you experience a form of tunnel vision that prevents you from rational and logical thought.

ouf of self-control in officeDuring an amygdala hijack, you may say something that your rational mind would know would make you lose your job or an important relationship, but you couldn’t seem to help yourself. You may blame it on being provoked. You may take actions that land you in legal troubles or send you to prison.

During an amygdala hijack, your self-control doesn’t exist. The time to prevent an amygdala hijack is before the situation that provokes you. Getting adequate rest on a regular basis goes a long way toward helping you prevent a life-changing amygdala hijack. If you tend to become angry easily, you may also want to learn anger management skills and develop a meditation practice as well. Both will help you avoid derailing your life because of an amygdala hijack.

In a worse-case scenario, an amygdala hijack is called temporary insanity. While the plea may work in a court of law under some scenarios, it doesn’t work in the court of public opinion.

If you find yourself in an amygdala hijack situation and you can get enough of your prefrontal cortex to work to name the emotion you’re feeling, it may calm the amygdala enough for you to gain control and prevent a life-changing mistake. If you develop a habit of mentally naming the emotions you feel, it would be easier for you to do it during a potential amygdala hijack.

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Sleep Deprivation and the Ability to Feel Calm

Another way sleep deprivation affects our behavior is by interfering with our ability to feel calm and relaxed.

Individuals with PTSD can experience a state of heightened vigilance where they are always on the lookout for problems. The vigilance occurs at a subconscious level that leaks over into their conscious thought process and actions.

In much the same way, partial sleep deprivation causes neurobehavioral impairments that make someone exhibit vigilance. Sleeping in on the weekends is not sufficient to cure this neurobehavioral impairment and researchers do not yet know if carrying a chronic sleep debt causes permanent damage.

When your brain is operating in a vigilant mode, it is difficult to feel calm.

keep calm

Calmness is an important quality when you are dealing with delicate matters. For example, a therapist must be able to be calm while a client shares information about horrendous histories with them during counseling. Likewise, a surgeon must be calm when they are operating. The ability to find a quiet and calm place within helps you deal with relationship disagreements without causing lasting damage to the relationship. If you’re caring for a baby or child, they pick up on your stress level. If you are able to feel calm, it will be easier to calm your child.

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Sleep Deprivation and Self-Control for Dieting

Researchers repeatedly report that adults who sleep less than 6 hours per night and children who do not meet the sleep requirements for their age bracket have higher BMIs. While a study that followed individuals long enough and with enough detail to prove that sleeping longer would result in weight loss or prevent weight gain has not yet been done due to the difficulty of controlling a long term study like that, we do know that experiencing a short sleep duration increases food and calorie intake while lowering the quality of the foods consumed.

One study gave normal weight men a standard breakfast and provided them with a fixed amount of money with the instructions that they should buy as much food as they could noted significant differences in what they purchased after a normal night’s sleep and a night of total sleep deprivation. Following sleep deprivation, their choices contained significantly more calories and carbohydrates.

women don't eat too muchIn another study, lean men’s food choices were observed in a controlled environment following two nights of partial sleep deprivation and again after adequate rest. Following sleep deprivation there was a 22% increase in calories and a 98% increase in fats consumed.

Even though we can’t say for sure that short sleep durations cause obesity, we can say that you’ll need more self-control to resist the urge to consume high-fat and high-calorie foods when you’re sleep deprived than when you’re well-rested. It makes sense to get enough rest, so you don’t have to fight yourself in order to make healthy choices when you’re trying to lose weight.

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Sleep Deprivation and Staying Fit

Sleep and exercise have a bi-directional relationship. When someone is adequately rested, they are more likely to have the self-control required to make themselves exercise. When someone is not well-rested, they are less likely to exercise. However, exercise is a useful non-pharmacological treatment for sleep problems like insomnia. Increasing exercise may lead to increased sleep duration.

In a study with men whose sleep was controlled, both the time spent doing intense physical activities and the total time spent being physically active decreased when they experienced short sleep duration compared to the amount they did when they were adequately rested. Another study found that sleep deprived individuals feel exhausted faster when they physically exert themselves.

doing intense physical activitiesIt takes more self-control to make yourself exercise when you’re sleep deprived than it does when you’re well rested.

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Sleep Deprivation and Alcohol and Drug Abuse

One beer has the same impact on a person with four hours of sleep as six beers has on a well-rested personUCLA Sleep Disorder Center

In many respects, the behavior of someone who is sleep deprived is already like that of someone who is intoxicated before they take a drink. When sober sleep deprived individuals are subjected to tests used to measure alcohol intoxication, their results are similar to those of individuals who are legally intoxicated. Self-control impairments from sleep deprivation are similar to those of someone who is intoxicated. They are more likely to say things they will later regret, they are less likely to control impulses and say things that are unkind, and they are less likely to display empathy.

Sleep deprivation and alcohol and drug abuse have numerous intertwined relationships. There is a bi-directional relationship between sleep deprivation and alcohol and drug abuse. Insomnia makes abuse and relapse during recovery more likely.

Decreased function in the prefrontal cortex that reduces self-control is a likely candidate for the connection between sleep deprivation and relapse to recovering addicts.

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Sleep Deprivation and Deviant Behavior at Work

Deviant behavior at work refers to behaviors that are not socially acceptable in that environment, don’t meet the requirements of the workplace, and behaviors that are detrimental to the organization or members of the organization. Behaviors in this category include minor problems such as tardiness and more serious problems such as violence, drug use, vandalism, incivility (rudeness), and theft.

Researchers used faux email assignments to measure the degree of deviant behavior exhibited by individuals who were well-rested and when they were sleep deprived. They found support for their theory that sleep deprivation reduces the amount of self-control a person exhibits in ways that can threaten the well-being of the organization or its members.

sleep deprivation reduces the amount of self-control

In other research, there is evidence that someone who exhibits counterproductive work behaviors (deviant behavior at work) will sleep worse that night due to rumination or feelings of guilt.

Sleep deprivation is associated with decreased self-control and increased hostility.

Harm to the workplace doesn’t occur only as the direct result of the sleep deprived individual. Numerous research studies have linked experiencing rudeness at work with adverse outcomes including lower morale, higher stress, sleep deprivation in the person exposed to the rudeness, increased turnover, workplace accidents and mistakes, and fear at work.

Employers have a vested interest in employee sleep health.

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Sleep Deprivation and Your Career

Severe insomnia causes employees to miss work twice as often as good sleepers – National Sleep Foundation

Employees who wish to be well-regarded and successful would do well to practice good sleep hygiene. We’ve just discussed how sleep deprivation reduces self-control leading to deviant behavior at work but that is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the way sleep deprivation interferes with good workplace outcomes.

If the work requires the employee to be alert, whether it is a detective on a stakeout or working undercover or someone working with dangerous machinery, sleep deprivation interferes with success by reducing alertness. Sleep deprivation interferes with the ability to focus and pay attention, a form of self-control that is critical to health and safety at work.

Important functions performed in the prefrontal cortex become impaired during sleep deprivation. These include:

  • Reduced ability to think innovatively
  • Reductions in language and communication skills
  • Lack of psychological flexibility (including rejecting other people’s innovative ideas)
  • Decreases in the ability to focus
  • Following previous patterns when they aren’t completely appropriate – using known strategies because they are familiar
  • Memory impairments
  • Resisting new ideas
  • Lower empathy
  • Reductions in mood
  • Poor responses when something unexpected happens

These significant impairments may not seem related to self-control, but if the job requires innovation, clear communication, empathy, or psychological flexibility, the inability to react appropriately even if one wants to do so, indicates that the person cannot exert the control of self that is necessary to perform as the job and situation require. While some decisions can be revisited once the employee’s sleep debt has been recovered, others are irreversible.

As a tragic example of such a time, in 1986, there was a great deal of excitement about sending a civilian school teacher into space on the 10th flight of Space Shuttle Challenger. Unfortunately, 73 seconds into the flight, everyone on board died when the shuttle broke apart. The investigation found that key decision-makers had slept less than two hours the night before the launch, citing in The report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident that “working excessive hours, while admirable, raises serious questions when it jeopardizes job performance, particularly when critical management decisions are at stake.”

The higher one climbs in an organization, the more likely it is they will have to make life and death decisions. In some of those cases, emergencies and the duration of the emergency make adequate sleep nearly impossible to obtain. For example, during the 2018 fire season in California, the Mendocino Complex Fire began on July 27, 2018 and wasn’t completely subdued until September 18th.  Fires are life-threatening and unpredictable. If the decision-makers leading the fire fighting efforts aren’t able to get enough sleep, their ability to lead suffers. Currently, in conditions like this, the focus is on getting enough sleep to function rather than enough sleep to optimize performance.

Would well-rested leaders have been able to end the fire sooner with innovative ideas

Would well-rested leaders have been able to end the fire sooner with innovative ideas? There is no way to know for sure. But research suggests that their chances of doing so would be better if they had the staff to allow for them to be fully rested. It should be noted that it is not only decision-makers whose performance suffers when they are sleep deprived. The firefighters themselves are more likely to make mistakes if they don’t get enough rest.

When the functions of the prefrontal cortex are impaired by sleep deprivation, any task that isn’t routine can be impaired. Caffeine and other stimulants do not make up for the impairments to innovation and flexible thinking caused by sleep deprivation.

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Sleep Deprivation and Risky Behaviors

Avoiding risky behaviors, such as an unexpected opportunity to take advantage of a situation in a way that has ethical, moral, or legal ramifications requires self-control. For example, discovering you accidentally picked up the wrong bag from the carousel at the airport after you get home should result in your return of the bag to the airport.

In a sleep-deprived state, someone would be more likely to take the risk of keeping the bag when they discover it contains expensive jewelry or electronics. Sleep deprivation can make poor decisions seem smart.

In research studies, individuals who were sleep deprived made riskier decisions than individuals who were well-rested.

In the suitcase example, an individual’s self-control should play an executive role in ensuring they do the right thing. It would do this, partially, by injecting thoughts that would elicit empathy, “How would you feel if this was your luggage and someone stole it?” Other techniques could include thoughts of the risks involved. If the items in the suitcase are truly valuable, keeping the suitcase could be a felony that carries the risk of time in prison.

Researchers found that individuals discount the risks involved in risky behaviors when they are sleep deprived.

sleep deprived students were more likely to drive after drinking alcohol than their rested peers

Among college students, sleep deprived students were more likely to drive after drinking alcohol than their rested peers. A first DUI is expensive but there are potential risks beyond expense. There is the potential of being injured or killed in an accident and, if the driver injures or kills someone else, some states classify the DUI as a felony with prison time of up to 20 years. Since intoxication and sleep deprivation both impede good control of the vehicle, choosing to drive under the influence is a very risky behavior choice that should be controlled by the individual’s self-regulation. Sleep-deprivation would affect the situation at multiple points including the decision to drink enough to become impaired, the decision to drive while intoxicated, and the inability to control the vehicle while driving.

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Sleep Deprivation and Infidelity

Infidelity occurs more often during business trips. Although this is often attributed to opportunity, it is more likely due to a perfect storm of factors with opportunity being one of the lesser contributors.

If you’ve traveled on business very often, you know it can be difficult to get adequate rest. Between early morning flights that can make it difficult to sleep well for fear of sleeping through your alarm and late night flights that are delayed which leave inadequate time for sleep between your arrival at a strange bed in a hotel and your important meeting, sleep deprivation is a common problem for business travelers. Even if you are attending a week long conference, the expectation that you will tend to your work email after the conference and its related social activities are finished for the day can leave too little time for sleep.

Sleep deprivation interferes with self-control which creates the first aspect of the perfect storm.

Another factor that comes into play during sleep deprivation is a focus on the negative aspects of situations. This can play out in many ways during business travel. It is not uncommon for the spouse who remains at home to be upset with the traveler’s absence. They may feel they are carrying more than their fair share of the responsibilities for childcare or home maintenance or simply have a strong desire for a partner who is with them most of the time. Whatever the cause of discord, sleep deprivation will increase the level of the negative emotional response to complaints or bickering.

The book, Losing Control: How and Why People Fail at Self-Regulation, documented a connection between emotional distress and self-control failures.

Thus, sleep deprivation increases the risk that the person’s negative mood and focus on negative aspects of their life and spouse will lead to discord that then causes emotional distress which creates another aspect of the perfect storm for marital infidelity.

The third main aspect is the natural human desire to feel good emotionally. At its basis, human behavior pursues positive emotions. This is a complex relationship so it can be difficult to see when you look on the surface. But, when you dig down to the root cause of the behavior, you find a desire to feel good. If you look at someone who diligently goes to a job they hate, it may be difficult to see the connection. But if you dig deeper, you may find that the ability to keep a roof over their head or feed their children, things that do feel good, is the reason the person continues going to a job that does not feel good.

Another aspect of sleep deprivation is that it dims the focus on the long-term consequences of one’s choices and highlights short-term benefits.

When sleep deprivation reduces self-control and leads to discord in the marriage, one of the quickest ways to feel better is the distraction of someone who sees the good in us. Combine a stranger’s positive regard with the potential of physical pleasure and it creates the perfect storm for infidelity:

  • Sleep deprivation
  • Lower self-control
  • Marital discord
  • Desire to feel better

Add the opportunity a business trip can provide, and you have a recipe for infidelity.

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Sleep deprivation is a significant contributor to unexpected and undesired life detours. Sleep is a key aspect of good health and a good life. As individuals and a society, we should give sleep the high priority it deserves.

Risk managers should plan for adequate sleep when developing disaster plans.

Businesses should develop policies that take the detrimental effects of sleep deprivation into account. For example, an employee whose return flight was delayed should be allowed to catch up on sleep before reporting to the office. Currently, most businesses would commend the employee who shows up on time after just a few hours of sleep. The research shows that this is a poor decision.

Individuals should give sleep a higher priority and discard the idea that staying in bed when you’re tired is a moral failing often referred to as laziness. Individuals would be wise to pushback against situations that will not allow them to get adequate sleep because once they are in the situation, they lose some degree of self-control that can have serious adverse consequences to the life they hope to live.

Public Health proponents should consider the importance of sleep in urban planning. Finding ways to counteract noisy urban environments could improve sleep quality and reduce health disparities, risky behaviors, and domestic violence.

Couples should be aware of and guard against marital problems that sleep deprivation can contribute to by making sleep a priority and also by recognizing that grouchiness may be the result of sleep deprivation and being more forgiving when their spouse hasn’t had adequate rest.

Human effectiveness at exerting self-control is a significant contributor to our ability to live in civilized societies. Recognizing the ways lack of sleep can hamper efforts to control ourselves can help us create a better world for everyone.

Now that you know how important a good night’s sleep is to your well-being, here are some tips to help you get to sleep fast.

Sleep long and prosper.

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