Sleep and Stress

Sleep and stress. Why can’t we have more of one and less of the other? Which one would you pick? You know, sometimes some people don’t need a lot of sleep, and it has been shown that some stress could be good. So which would you choose more or less of? I’m thinking we all would like a little more sleep and a little less stress.

Sleep and Stress are Rules 7 and 8 in the brain rules book by John Medina, and both proved rather interesting as these are two things I seem to fight with all the time.

Chapter 7: Sleep

“Sleep well, think well”

Medina starts the chapter with a tale about 17-year-old Randy Gardner who set the Guinness World Record for 11 straight days without sleep in 1965. To this date, nobody has surpassed this feat. During the period of sleeplessness, Gardner had severe memory issues, nausea, hallucinations, and other issues, none of which were too pleasant.

For most of us 1/3 of our lives are spent sleeping (if you go by the 8 hours of sleep adage). However, when we are sleeping, scientists show that our brain is pretty active. In fact, only 20% of the time we are sleep is our brain truly restful in a deep sleep, known as rapid eye movement sleep or REM. Considering that when we do sleep, we are incredibly vulnerable (to predation or someone sneaking upon us), you would think that there has to be something supremely advantageous about sleep that allows it to remain in our genetic make-up. Seriously, wouldn’t you think it would be more valuable for us to be aware and running from predators than laying around on a feather duster?

“The Father of Sleep Research,” William Dement (who also oversaw young Gardner’s sleepless feat) determined that were two opposing drives occuring in the human body: one drive to keep the body away and one to make the body sleep.  I won’t get all technical on you, but basically, this is a constant battle between both drives where there is no winner. Rather, at one point one drive will be on the winning end, but at some point, it almost ‘wears’ out, and the other drive takes over. Try as hard as we might to stay awake, there is a natural inclination to sleep. Try as hard as we might to lay in bed and sleep all day, there is this inclination at some point to get up and get going.

Dr. Nathaniel Kleitman, who Medina calls the ‘grandfather of sleep research’ showed that humans have a predictable cycle and internal clock of sleep rhythms. If a person goes into a cave or a place where there is no indication of day, night, or the cycling of time, they still fall into a wake/sleep cycle. This cycle is part of our genetic makeup. On average, and if you couldn’t guess, the cycle plays out in an approximately 16:8 ratio. Additionally, as you could have guessed, there are people who are called ‘larks’ who tend to be early-morning risers who function best in the mornings. There are also ‘owls’ who tend to stay up later and function better into the evening. Those in the middle are called ‘hummingbirds.’

Ultimately, the amount of sleep someone truly requires is unknown. It’s an individual thing. My grandmother used to go to be at midnight and I’d find her awake and reading a book more often than not at 4 in the morning. She said she never really needed that much sleep. What IS important about sleep is that we NEED sleep. It may not matter how many hours, but the fact is, we need it to function.

He goes on to talk about the concept of the nap. At some point during the mid-afternoon, the battle between the two drives (to stay awake and to go asleep) reaches a mid-point…a sort of flat-line, where neither is winning and neither is losing. It’s just kind of a stalemate. You probably are familiar with this time. That point, say an hour or two after lunch where you just want to crawl under your desk and take a nap. Yeah. I’m there. Medina calls it the “nap zone.” Some people and countries call it a “siesta” and actually stop at that point in the day and rest. It’s been proven that taking a nap in the middle of the day improves cognitive function later.

He also stresses the importance of “sleeping on it.” He gives an example of students who were presented with a challenge and those who worked on the problem, then ‘slept on it,’ performed better and came up with better resolutions than those who did not. Sleep has been shown to enhance performance that involves visual and motor tasks and skills.

When you lose sleep, you lose brain power. Not only is your cognitive function affected, your health is affected…even the way your body utilizes food is affected. Losing sleep is no small matter. In another study cited by Medina, rats were put through the ropes learning their way through a maze. When the rats went to sleep, the same patterns that were evident in their brain while they were awake learning their way through the maze replayed themselves while the rats slept. Unconsciously, these processes were encoding their way into the brain and memory. This supported the belief that offline processing of knowledge occurs at night, kind of like a data warehouse sorts through all the data it gets during the day and commits it to memory and processes important functions in order to be at optimum in the morning.

Strategies and ideas to optimize this rule include allowing specific “chronotypes” to work according to their strongest hours. So, if a person does their best work at night, they shouldn’t be forced to work at 7 am. Additionally, Medina believes we should promote naps at school, at work, wherever and whenever. I know it really sucked once I got out of kindergarten, and we stopped having naps. In the recent weeks, I have found myself catching a quick 10 minute nap over lunch. I could go for a good 20 minute one around 2 or 3 o’clock. And finally, Medina proposed that we provide more opportunities for students/workers to get together over a weekend or a few days to focus on challenging problems. By hosting a retreat, people could come together, focus on a problem, brainstorm ideas, and then sleep on it. The sleep portion would allow the answers to brew and stew and then, potentially, the next day, new fresh answers would be evident. Similar, to retreats, students interested in entrepreneurship have been known to get together over a span of a day or two to participate in hackathons–events where innovative solutions are key (not sure how much sleep they get, but I’d be interested to see what effect a few hours of sleep would have on resulting outcomes.)

Chapter 8: Stress

“Stressed brains don’t learn the same way”

Medina starts the chapter with a really painful experiment detailing the treatment of a dog to achieve “learned helplessness.” Not my favorite part of the book, but it gets the point across. Basically, a dog is treated to a series of events where there was now way out and all learning is basically shut down. Not a good place to be. Ever.

So, let’s start out with the fact that not all stress is the same and it isn’t experienced the same. What may be stressful to me may not be stressful to you. Sure, you love jumping out of a plane. I do not. It’s all relative.

Kim and Diamond established a 3-part definition of stress.

  • The stress must be measurable around a physiological response
  • The stressor must be perceived as averse.
  • The person affected by the stressor does not feel in control of the stressor.

Stress causes a flood of adrenalin into our system, our pulse races, our blood pressure rises, and we have a massive release of energy. This goes back to our original fight-or-flight response: “Sabre-toothed tiger!!! RUN!!!!” The hormone, cortisol, is what is released that returns us to normalcy. However, early man didn’t have many stressful situations. Nowadays, it seems our stresses occur all the time and may span days, weeks, or even years. The constant exposure to our bodies of cortisol is not healthy. In fact, the effects of chronic stress include increased risk of heart attacks, decreased immune response, cognitive difficulties. The presence of slight stress actually can be good for the brain. It rises to the challenge, responds rapidly and effectively, and, you could say, even invigorates the soul. Too much stress harms learning. It specifically harms declarative memory and executive function states Medina.

The Biology Behind It All

There is a bunch of biology behind it all that I will try to summarize, but i can’t guarantee miracles. Ultimately, the villain in this all is cortisol. Even though it is what restores balance after a short stress event, the prolonged exposure to it causes great issues for the hippocampus. Cortisol is a glucocorticoid. Glucocorticoids are known to have an affinity for the cells in and around the hippocampus. When they are loose and running about, they tend to beat up on it. In fact, they have been known to kill cells surrounding it. This isn’t good for us. The hero, however, is the Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). BDNF exists to buffer and protect the hippocampus, however, when glucocorticoids launch a sustained attack, the BDNF can be overwhelmed. Sustained attacks on the hippocampus can result in forgetfulness, depression, and loss of memory. In short, stress hurts people.

Medina speaks to a genetic buffer against stress. Some people can just handle stress better than others. Again, what stresses you may not stress me, and it may not stress me the same way. Maybe I become stronger because of a stressor; maybe I do not.

Bruce McEwen spoke to the “Allostasis Framework,” which is (as I understand it), an effort on the systems of the body to adjust and adapt to stress so that the body can remain stable. It’s the body’s method of trying not to become too stressed out. The body’s reaction to stress depends on the intensity and strength of the stress, the length of time the stress is in place, and the severity of the stress on the body.

Medina moves on to the meat of how stress affects learning. One of the greatest predictors of performance in school turns out to be emotional stability at home. Students who experience a lot of stress at home perform poorly at school. Additionally, people who have a high amount of stress in their lives may not be perform optimally when they are at work. The effects of stress are devastating on students at workers and cost an incredible amount of money. Think about money lost on training to a person who has to drop out of the work force. Think of the hours spent by a teacher to reach a student who is ultimately unreachable. Factors of productivity at work include the amount of control a person has, the amount of balance they have in their job (a little uncertainty is good), and what their family life is like. If they have no control over their job, their job is static and boring, and their family life sucks, odds are they aren’t going to be very good workers.

How can we mitigate the effects of stress on learners and workers? Medina offers a few suggestions:

  • First, we need to remember that what people do in their private life affects their public life, but we aren’t always privy to what is going on in the private life.
  • Next, we need to teach parents first. Before parents have kids, when parents have kids, before kids hit school, we need to educated them on ways to create a stable home life and how to support their children. “Education from the beginning of a child’s life is a family affair.” I can’t agree with that more. The first 7 years my son was in school, I found a way to get into the classroom, to help out, to insert myself into his school life to show how important it was to me and him.
  • Medina also recommends providing free family counseling and child care. People tend to start a family when they are at their most vulnerable. They are usually just getting started in a career and are supposed to be doing stellar work to move up the corporate ladder. This creates stress by diverting priorities and creating overwhelming demands. If we could offer more support to those in need, perhaps we could stop stress before it happens.
  • And finally, we need to give/show people that they have control over their own lives. Nobody else has control over your life. You are the one in charge of making the decisions, so people need to be empowered and prepared. Playing the victim never gets you the win.

“If you can’t control your peanut butter, you can’t expect to control your life…”

Bill Watterson, The Authoritative Calvin And Hobbes (1995)

Bill Watterson, The Authoritative Calvin And Hobbes (1995)


Medina, J. (2008). Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.


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