Why don't we sleep when we are tired?😴
🌟 Avoiding obstacles like FOMO, loneliness, guilt, condescension and mania.
What if I told you it was actually pretty easy to be more alert in your day? I know it sounds silly, especially when we are so conditioned to think of the modern lifestyle as so exhausting. But it's true! I used to have trouble falling asleep and often wake up feeling unrested. It turns out I was making two simple mistakes:
1. My bedroom had overhead full-spectrum fluorescent lighting! Whoops! I should have had warm-toned nightlights.
2. I used to work out every day, at night! Whoops! I should have done my workouts earlier in the day.
While these kinds of things are easy to fix, the emotional challenge of doing so can get in the way. Thankfully, these challenges are predictable and avoidable with forethought.
How to overcome resistance
By overcoming the emotional resistance to change, you can unlock greater wellbeing. If you are a wellness pro who helps others make lifestyle changes, you can help your clients with these, too. If you are a community-member (aren’t we all?), you can help everyone! The physical challenges are one thing, but the emotional side is its own thing.
The physical challenge of the circadian lifestyle
There are 2 main ways people's circadian rhythms go astray:
There is too much variation in the day-to-day. This can be from work schedules, jet-lag, partying, or environment.
There is too little variation in the day-to-day. This can be from indoor living, and especially the for the bedridden. To go back to my example, the light in my bedroom was artificially extending my "sunset" experience.
The good thing about the circadian rhythm is you can fix it (physically) with next to no willpower. At least, the way I teach it that is possible! Many people go astray by focusing too much on schedule. What time do you get up? Exercise? Go outside? Go to bed? Have caffeine? Smoke? These behavioral cues are all strong zeitgeibers. For example, heavy cannabis users may have stronger entrainment than non-users (see this abstract here for how that might be working).
But they aren't self-sufficient zeitgeibers.
A self-sufficient zeitgeiber can entrain circadian clocks on its own. These can vary between species, but for humans, we are looking at only 3 self-sufficient cues:
So the 2 most important things to control for are environmental, and the third is mealtimes. All other, non-self-sufficient zeitgeibers work to support or detract from these primary cues. Alltogether, other circadian cues like social activities, exercise, alarm clocks, road noise, smoking, and other habitual activities influence the timing set by the self-sufficient zeitgeibers. But they don’t override them.
Here's a review describing how the different known zeitgeibers interact: Entrainment of the Human Circadian Clock (2007).
So this is why you may have failed in the past if you tried to, say, set bedtime and waketime alarms. Yes, going to bed and waking up at the same time can help, but they won't override the self-sufficient cues. In my anecdote, the workout time was throwing me off, but it was in many ways a symptom of my lighting problem.
Circadian around the clock?
Humans and other critters have always lived "around the clock." The need for a strict diurnal schedule is only true under artificially lit conditions. Read the article attached to Consolidated vs Unconsolidated Sleep if you want to see alternatives to the 16/8 schedule. I was amazed to find out that light could have such a big impact on how we sleep!
When lighting follows nature, a greater variety of schedules become possible. So, the only physical problem is keeping the environment "natural." With this in mind, most modern entertainment experiences—TV, movies, clubbing, dining—become off limits! It seems simple, physically, to give them up. Emotionally, however, this can be a big hurdle.
The emotional-social challenge of the circadian lifestyle
Setting the home lights and thermostat in a new way is pretty straightforward. Limiting food consumption to daytime is straightforward, even if it takes more willpower. But the feelings about all this that can come up that are a little trickier to deal with. Here are some common ones:
Fear of missing out.
Any change has opportunity cost—how will you deal with missing your old lifestyle?
Where will you hang out (and with who)? Nighttime dining, theaters, clubs and oh-so-many other arenas are sources of circadian disruption.
Your [significant other] still embraces the modern life—now that you see the problems, you can't unsee them. Do you judge? Should you say anything? Conversely, do you now feel guilty for the lifestyle you lived in the past?
Your [significant other] refuses to listen to your advice—why don't they get it? Should you push it?
You now live a lifestyle of rhythmicity—are you still sympathetic to those who choose not to?
Please study up if you or anyone in your house has a diagnosed mental condition, especially bipolar or schizophrenia. And be careful with your daytime light adjustments so you don't trigger any episodes. Here is a review I have written about and cited many times because it is so comprehensive: Circadian rhythm disruption and mental health (2020).
Social pressure to the rescue
Giving up so much of modern society is a big deal, even when beneficial. If a person's community doesn't support them, that alone can overwhelm the urge to change. But when families, friends, and professionals are all in harmony, success is almost guaranteed. Humans are social like that :)
Positive communication leads to a culture of appreciation
Respectful communication is a way to elicit participation and nurture social harmony. If you are helping professionally, you can help your clients by sharing these tips, too. I see community-building as the only real way to deal with these emotional obstacles. So, here are some quick action tips:
Use "I" statements to express your need for change in a proactive way.
Remind yourself of reasons for gratitude, even if dealing with problems and “problem people.” Try to have conversations from an overall foundation of cheerfulness.
Take responsibility for yourself, including for past mistakes, without defending yourself. This humility goes a long way!
If you feel like you are getting worked up and feel unable to speak from a positive place any more, say so, and take a break so you can come back with a positive mindset.
These habits go a long way toward building a culture of trust and appreciation. I adapted them from here:
Negotiating changes like new nightlights, new mealtimes, and new recreational habits can actually be pretty difficult in some circumstances. These positive verbal patterns, or “antidotes,” avoid the kinds of disagreements that tend to break relationships. Remember, a secure emotional foundation is the best launchpad for positive change. I also shared about using these skills to build circadian community here:
Cultivation of emotional resilience improves successful outcomes
The circadian movement still has a long way to go to reach mainstream support. There are a lot of modern things we love—movie theaters, laser light shows, etc—that give unnatural cues. These unnatural cues disturb rhythms, but in modern culture, we view them as normal. This is why FOMO and loneliness are common sources of resistance. Achieving this lifestyle asks for strong relationships and community-wide participation.
For some inspirational pictures, go back to my post about circadian community. I mean, if we can do this for sea turtles, can we do this for ourselves?
That's all for today, but I will send more research soon. A topic I am researching is how to leverage both nature and new technology in our quest for rhythmicity. Do you have any experiences or questions about doing either or both? I'd love it if you could share in the comments!
Why shouldn’t we just sleep when we are tired (and get up whenever we feel like it)? Well, if our light and temperature enviro’s are all “modern,” the truth is, we can’t trust our bodies to be delivering those signals at the right times!