It’s been said that ‘the body is the temple of the soul.’ Whether or not you believe that, there can be no doubt that physical health – which includes brain health – is a critical foundation of well-being and a good life.
By physical health, we don’t mean total freedom from illness and disease, which isn’t even an option for people with chronic medical conditions. We mean a level of physical health that’s appropriate to the limits of a person’s unique body. That’s something everyone can move toward and achieve.
We also mean healthy functioning in the following key areas, which both common sense and mountains of research have shown are essential for body and brain health:
- Exercise / Vigorous Physical Activity
We all know how rested and refreshed we can feel after a good night’s sleep.
Well all know, too, that we can sacrifice sleep to other things that seem much more important. But when we do, we cheat ourselves out of the feeling – and reality – of well-being that good sleep brings.
Getting enough sleep is a key to enjoying our lives
For some people, though, even if they want to get a good night’s sleep, and are really trying to, it just doesn’t happen. They may be unable – at least not without using medicine, alcohol, marijuana or some other drug – to relax and “let their guard down” enough to fall asleep. Nightmares might keep them up.
For some, sleep is hard to get, and even when they do it’s usually not restful.
This is the case for many men who had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood (and maybe physical and/or emotional abuse too). Getting to sleep, staying asleep, and having a truly restful sleep can be rare or impossible. Such problems may be particularly troublesome if there’s been little healing from what happened. But even far along in the healing or recovery process, sleep problems may continue.
Whatever our situation, being tired can prevent us from truly enjoying, or doing well at, the important things in our lives – including the “more important” things we may squeeze in while squeezing out sleep. Due to sleep deprivation, we can end up not enjoying precious time with family and friends, our favorite activities, or a job that could be very rewarding.
Sleep amount and quality can even affect how much benefit we get from exercising and eating well. Not sleeping well can actually wipe out their positive effects.
It’s not just that losing sleep affects us badly. True as that is, that’s not the point here. Just knowing that sleep is good for us doesn’t help us that much. What positive steps can we take toward sleeping better? May what follows bring hope and motivation to find ways to get better sleep.
Sleep Problems in Traumatized Children and the Men They Become
When children are having unwanted or abusive sexual experiences, it can really mess up their sleep. Some men, as children, could not feel safe in their own bedroom. They never knew whether they would be awakened in the middle of the night by unwanted sexual contact.
Such experiences make sleep itself something that’s dangerous and scary – just the opposite of what’s needed for the brain and body to relax into restful and rejuvenating sleep.
But even if sexually exploitive or abusive experiences don’t happen at home and at night, such experiences affect the brain in ways that can cause lasting sleep problems.
Fear, anxiety, and generally being “on guard” can make it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep. Nightmares about unwanted or abusive sexual experiences are not uncommon. A child, and even an adult, might have all kinds of terrifying dreams with the same feelings of vulnerability and fear as during the abuse, or feelings of anger that are mostly kept under wraps during the day.
The same is true not just for children who are repeatedly physically or emotionally abused inside their home, but when it happens outside the home, as well. And it’s true for children who could be awakened at any time by arguments or violence in their house. When nighttime and sleep are not safe, our brains and bodies can’t relax and our sleep suffers.
For many men who’ve been through such experiences as children, even if the painful memories are kept from awareness during the day, at night, when we are vulnerable to painful memories and fears, sleep can be difficult, or literally a nightmare.
And some men grew up in chaotic homes, where there was little or no regular schedule and they never experienced or learned healthy sleep habits.
Coming from childhoods like those, many men have learned to avoid sleep until they’re exhausted, or to fall asleep while watching TV, or to drink alcohol or smoke marijuana to become calm enough to fall sleep. If your situation is like that, you are definitely not alone.
Unfortunately, as people discover for themselves, alcohol and drugs, including “sleep medications” provided by doctors, may help with falling and staying asleep, but are usually temporary, stop-gap remedies. They discover that chemically-induced sleep the sleep is less restful and rejuvenating than real sleep. And such chemical solutions tend not to work long enough to ensure a solid night of sleep.
Lasting Sleep Problems and How to End Them
It’s possible to break free of such sleep problems and only partly successful ways of coping with them.
Sleep can be affected by many things in your life that can reduce abuse-related effects or make them worse. These include your daily stress level, how you eat, and whether and how you exercise.
Learning about the benefits of sleep, and what promotes good restful sleep, described below, is a good place to start. After that, each person can discover his own individual needs and what works for him. Some people may need professional help, including assessment to determine whether you have a “sleep disorder.” Getting that kind of help is important and perfectly OK.
Big Benefits of Sleep
Getting good sleep has many extremely positive effects on the body and brain. And researchers keep finding more all the time.
These positive effects of good sleep not only include giving us energy and alertness, but also enhancing our moods and improving our ability to learn and remember. All of that translates into greater confidence and more positive thoughts and feelings about ourselves and about other people, as well as making us more capable of meeting the challenges of life, both big and small.
The precise biology of how sleep works its wonders is not yet fully understood. But there’s no doubt about this: If you’re regularly getting a good night’s sleep, you’ve got in place a key foundation of genuine physical health and well-being in place.
While there is no ideal amount of nightly sleep that applies to everyone, 7 to 8 hours appears best for most adults. If you know the basics about sleep’s benefits, and you pay attention to how much you’re sleeping and how it’s affecting you, it’s not hard to tell whether you’re getting enough.
Costs of Sleep Deprivation
Many people don’t realize the many effects that sleep deprivation, especially when it builds up into “sleep debt,” can have in their lives. These include:
- Decreased reaction time and movement accuracy (e.g., sleep-deprived driving can be as dangerous as drunk driving)
- Bad moods and irritability
- Learning difficulties, including those caused by trouble focusing and sustaining attention
- Memory problems
- Problems controlling impulses (e.g., angry and addictive ones)
- Impaired decision-making and moral judgment
- Various physical problems and even diseases, including impaired immune system functioning and increased risks of heart disease, obesity, and Type 2 diabetes
It is possible to get too much sleep, which is also not good for the body and brain. (Too much sleep, or “hypersomnia,” is not uncommon in people suffering from depression.) But few of us have to worry about that, rather than how to regularly get enough good sleep…
Good Sleep Habits
There are many good resources on healthy sleep-related habits that enable people to:
- Fall asleep relatively easily
- Stay asleep
- Sleep sufficiently long and restfully to get all the benefits of a truly healthy night’s sleep
For example, everyone knows that drinking lots of caffeine makes it hard to sleep at night. But many don’t realize that it’s best not to exercise within 2 hours of going to sleep (because exercise can raise body temperature for hours and a higher body temperature makes it harder to fall asleep). Also, reading and watching TV in bed can make it harder to relax and fall asleep, and eating a large meal close to bedtime interferes with sleep.
We can’t say strongly enough that healthy sleep habits and quality sleep are key foundations for physical and psychological well-being. Even if you think this is obvious, it’s probably worth a little time to learn more about good sleep-related habits.
Also, depending on the nature of your sleep problems, and how much difficult you’re having overcoming them, it may make sense to seek help from a “sleep clinic” or a doctor specializing in “sleep medicine.”