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Finding it tough to sleep after a long day? You are far from alone. Image Credit: Shutterstock

The kids have gone to bed, it’s a slow evening – the moon is shining. You are just sitting doing nothing. Bed time comes closer and closer and then crawls by. But you are having way too much fun … doing nothing, perhaps scrolling down an Instagram feed or watching a TikTok video. If you find yourself in this predicament, you are not alone. In fact, this delay of sleep time is such a phenomenon that it’s even got a name: ‘Revenge Bedtime Procrastination’.

It’s particularly observed in parents with busy lives and little ‘me-time’, says Dr Waleed Ahmed, Consultant in Child, Adolescent and Adult Psychiatry, Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. “This may be a problem for some parents who have very little time for themselves during the day and look forward to some quiet time during the night to catch-up on hobbies, social media, streaming services, etc. Some researchers argue that this behaviour is linked to problems in self-regulation.”

Claudine Gillard, of UAE-based firm Sweet Dreams Sleep Consulting, adds: “There’s a strange relationship to sleep by some people where they think sleep is the enemy or problem or an issue.”

The origin story of Revenge Bedtime Procrastination

The term bedtime procrastination was introduced to the world back in 2014, in a study from the Netherlands. A few years later, the word revenge was added to the mix argue some, while others say it was an English term for another process that found fame in China – 'bàofùxìng áoyè’, which means retaliatory staying up late, explains UK broadcaster BBC. This term was, argues Sleep Foundation, a result of frustration tied to long, stressful work hours that left little time for personal enjoyment.

Sleeplessness in a parent may be caused by many things – it could just be being wired up after a hard day’s work or wanting some space to oneself or it could be caused by anxiety about a child. Gillard explains that this anxiety-robbing phenomenon is quite common too. “A parent may contact me about themselves. But it's not the child that's causing them not to sleep - directly anyway. I mean, they might be worried about their child and that’s causing them to lose out on sleep, but it’s not really the child,” she explains.

Another issue that wreaks havoc on a good night’s nap is the expectation of a restless night – it sort of becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, she says.

It’s important then to mould the mind’s processes – to channel those ‘heavy thoughts’ to the day. “We can’t go through life, always without any burdens. So my job is to help people to manage those burdens at a time of day that's appropriate. The last thing you want to be doing if you want to get a good night's sleep is either having stimulating conversations, or having very stimulating thoughts,” explains Gillard.

In both cases, it’s imperative to slot time to digest thoughts and detox the mind.

How much sleep do we really need?

Dubai Health Authority recently put up a tweet explaining that as adults, we need between seven and nine hours of sleep. During these hours of rest, our nerve cells regenerate, and some connections light up, strengthening our brain and thinking ability. Sleeping enough is also linked to mental and physical well-being; people who don’t get enough sleep are often at risk of health problems such as obesity, diabetes and heart problems, explains the US-based Cleveland Clinic’s website.

Dr Ahmed explains the detrimental effect of chronic sleeplessness. “An occasional night without sleep can make one tired during the following day but it wouldn’t necessarily affect one’s health. However, after several sleepless nights, one may begin to feel tired, find it difficult to concentrate, and start to feel depressed and anxious,” he says.

A recent study on sleep loss and its impact, published in the journal ‘Annals of Behavioral Medicine’ found that three days of consecutive sleep loss – i.e. sleeping less than six hours – has a detrimental impact on the physical and mental well-being of a person. "Many of us think that we can pay our sleep debt on weekends and be more productive on weekdays," Lead author Soomi Lee, assistant professor in the School of Aging Studies at the University of South Florida, said. "However, results from this study show that having just one night of sleep loss can significantly impair your daily functioning."

Gillard believes some sleep compensation is possible, but not if you have chronic issues. “You can compensate for sleep the next night by going to bed earlier – it’s recommended rather than lying-in in the morning – easier to control bedtime. You can’t make it all up the next night, of course, but over the next few days. If you have chronic sleep debt, you would not expect to make it up, you would just need to get into healthy sleep habits that going forward would not create further sleep debt for yourself.”

What are the different stages of sleep?

Gillard explains that scientists and neurologists have identified four stages of sleep. All stages are necessary. “Sleep is divided into non-rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep and REM sleep. Basically, you’ve got a period of pathway into sleep, so stage one is very, very light sleep whereby you are just under unconsciousness. It’s easy to be woken up, you are not fully relaxed. Stage two you are definitely asleep. The body experiences a change in temperature, your brainwaves slow down, your heartrate slows down, your breathing slows down, you become relaxed and maybe you could be woken up but it will be more difficult.

“Non-REM is also called delta sleep. Basically, there’s significant changes to the body at this time. There’s a lot of change to your pulse and breathing rate, which decreases even more, muscles are more relaxed, there’s a reduction in brain activity. This stage is thought to boost recovery, restoration, immunity system and so on.

“REM sleep – this is where the brain activity picks up. The brain activity seen at this time is very, very similar to being awake. It is called dream sleep, so we assume there’s a lot of necessary brain function going on in such as memory, cognitive learning, awareness of certain things like being creative and having thought patterns that will then transfer to day time, so it’s absolutely essential. People who don’t have REM sleep, then there’ll be an issue in terms of repercussions. Usually, REM sleep comprises 25 per cent of our total sleep. We tend to have more REM sleep as the night wears on, particularly by morning time, which is why we remember our dreams when we wake up.

How does a body decide it’s time to sleep?

It all boils down to something called a circadian rhythm – this is what determines sleep patterns, body temperature, hormone release and even metabolism. When night comes, the body increases the levels of the hormone melatonin in preparation for sleep; when the time comes to wake up, on the other hand, the body raises its temperature and releases the hormone cortisol, which makes one alert. As yet, the link between tendency to procrastinate bedtime and a person’s circadian rhythm has not been clearly established.

Dr Ahmed offers some tips to counter Revenge Bedtime Procrastination

  1. Bring to mind that sleep is a crucial part of maintaining good health. Lack of sleep leads to severe mental and physical health problems.
  2. Schedule time for oneself during the day rather than leaving it until bedtime or later.
  3. Turn off digital devices during the evening and turn off the ‘auto-play’ feature on your streaming services.
  4. Get into good sleep hygiene, develop set routines and practices like mindfulness.
  5. Create and communicate clear boundaries between your work and personal time, especially when working remotely and from home.

Still finding it tough to get some restful shut-eye? Here are Gillard’s tips for an easy settle into sleep:

  1. Pre sleep, do a relaxing activity such as a relaxing bath, yoga, mindfulness and meditation.
  2. Avoid screen time and if you can’t, adapt it. “So the only thing I recommend then if people, want to use screens is blue light blocking. All right, so I can look at my phone just before bed because I have a blue light blocking screen on my phone. But, I don't really recommend it.”
  3. Find a suitable – relaxing – mantra: Self-fulfilling prophesies are a thing – if you think you are going to have a sleepless night, you’ll probably worry yourself into it. “The best thing you can do is try and find a way to not try and find a suitable mantra that you can say to yourself before and that is reframing the sleep experience,” she explains.
  4. Look at your bedroom carefully: Assess whether or not it feels welcoming. Ask yourself: Do I actually feel relaxed in this room? Do I feel anxious about being so I feel comfortable or uncomfortable if I feel uncomfortable or anxious? What if I add something or take something away? “It really is impactful at sleep time to go into a place that doesn't feel comfortable, tidy or inviting,” she explains.

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