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Sleep Hygiene, Mental Health, and the Legal Profession

Many know all too well the feeling of fatigue on a morning commute or impending drowsiness sitting down to an afternoon conference call. Maybe this exhaustion has even interfered at home  ̶  perhaps impatience with a partner or the lack of energy to enjoy time with children. The effect of sleep, or the lack thereof, on an individual’s mood, job performance, or overall well-being has been much studied in recent years. Consistent sleep hygiene may be more important to one’s law practice and personal life than many currently understand.

According to the Sleep Foundation, “Sleep hygiene encompasses both environment and habits, and it can pave the way for higher-quality sleep and better overall health.” It is an overall series of behaviors that support ideal productive sleep conditions. Quality sleep is vital for both physical and mental health, enhancing overall quality of life.

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommends that the average adult get seven to nine hours of sleep each night. However, at least one third of American adults surveyed reported less than seven hours of sleep on average with closer to one half of participants of some racial and ethnic demographics reporting insufficient sleep.

In many cases of routine sleep deficiency, poor sleep hygiene may be a significant factor. Inconsistent bedtimes, interaction with electronic screens before sleep, unfavorable bedroom temperatures, poor dietary habits, and inadequate physical activity can contribute to substandard sleep hygiene. Stress and anxiety also often make it difficult for the brain to “relax” and for an individual to fall asleep soundly. Clear signs of poor sleep hygiene include trouble falling asleep, disrupted sleep, frequent bathroom use throughout the night, and daytime sleepiness and fatigue.

Inadequate sleep over multiple days builds “sleep debt”. Sleep debt is easy to accumulate but can be challenging to overcome. The CDC poses that an individual requiring eight hours of sleep, but only getting six, creates a two-hour sleep debt that day, and repeating this behavior for five days builds a sleep debt of ten hours. It will take several consecutive nights of quality sleep to “repay” that debt. 

In addition to the effects that prolonged sleep deficit may have on physical health, an individual’s mental health often suffers in tandem. A team from the University of California, Berkeley found that chronic disrupted sleep can profoundly change an individual’s brain chemistry. And while symptoms of anxiety and depression often lead to poor sleep, poor sleep can likewise prompt or exacerbate symptoms of anxiety and depression. Sleep is also thought to have a bidirectional relationship with obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, bipolar disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The human brain requires sufficient REM sleep to assist with the processing of both positive and negative emotions and to assess thoughts and memories. Sleep debt often begets irritability, mood swings, and difficulty concentrating. It impedes reflexes, encumbers emotional reactivity, and hinders problem-solving.

While several studies detail the effects of sleep deficiency on mental health, other recent reports show that the prevalence of mental health disorders is substantially greater among legal professionals compared to the general United States population. For lawyers struggling with mental health issues, including anxiety, disordered eating, excessive gambling, etc., the stress of legal practice frequently further aggravates such conditions. It is not uncommon for the weight of these factors to cause individuals to attempt to soothe symptoms with maladaptive behaviors (e.g., disordered eating, problematic gambling, etc.). “Without intervention and proper treatment,” Jennifer C. Zampogna, M.D., Director of Operations at Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of Pennsylvania, explains, “[these issues] are usually progressive, leading to impairment, unprofessional behavior, and subsequent risk of disciplinary action. Other mental health issues like depression and anxiety, when left untreated or improperly treated, can be so debilitating that lawyers can barely function at work as their judgement, decision making skills, and even memory can be compromised.”

Prolonged sleep deficiency can take a heavy toll on mental health, but there are attainable practices for building a better sleep routine. What are some strategies for encouraging good sleep hygiene? 

  • Stick to a routine. Bodily cues indicating tiredness can develop with routine sleep times. On weekends or during a vacation, endeavor to vary that bedtime by no more than one or two hours.
  • Build a sleep-friendly atmosphere. Make your bedroom quiet and relaxing. Keep the temperature of the room cool and comfortable. Employ soft, dim light indoors and block outside light. 
  • Restrict phone use before bed. A 2016 study by University of California, San Francisco researchers found that exposure to smartphone screens often precedes poor sleep quality. Avoid use of digital screens at least one hour before bedtime. (See tips on how to break bedtime scrolling.)
  • Calm the mind. Cortisol, or the “stress hormone”, augments alertness. Taking a warm bath, reading, journaling, meditating, or other calming practices can help to release stress or tension before bed.
  • Limit fluid intake. While it is important to stay well-hydrated throughout the day, reduce fluid intake before bedtime. Avoid caffeine consumption in the late afternoon or evening and avoid drinking alcohol too close to winding down for the evening.
  • Prioritize a healthy diet and exercise routine. Make time for a brisk walk or a series of stretching exercises. Prepare consistent, balanced meals. Small tweaks to a daily routine can have a meaningful impact on the quality of sleep.

Sleep debt and deficiency can wreak havoc on personal and professional lives. Getting sufficient sleep is a worthy investment in both work performance and productivity as well as one’s physical and mental health, relationships, and happiness.

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