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Nodding off? Prioritize sleep for better performance.

Lawyers are typically high-achieving people for whom sleep often becomes one of many sacrifices made along the course of professional advancement.

“We need sleep in the same way we need oxygen, water and food. We need sleep to survive,” said June J. Pilcher, Alumni Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Clemson University, in the On-Demand CLE webinar “Attorney Wellness: The Wonder of Sleep.”

Sleep deprivation impairs cognitive performance and immune function, lowers attention span and even affects mood and the ability to respond appropriately in social situations.

Lawyers who are sleep-deprived experience:

  • Decreased performance and attention span
  • Decrease in a broad range of physical and emotional health markers, including overreacting to stressful situations
  • An increased risk of cardio-vascular disease, diabetes, cancer and other chronic health problems
  • Decrease in self-control, coping skills and emotional responses, particularly in social settings
  • Decrease in stamina, performance awareness and the ability to recognize your performance is impaired.

Pilcher described several stages of sleep:  

  • Stage 1 – Brain activity begins to relax, and muscle tone decreases dramatically. You see this stage when someone falls asleep during a lecture and their head starts to bob. “It is at this stage the body is going to sleep and the brain is catching up with the body,” she said.
  • Stage 2 – Brain wave activity slows further.
  • Stages 3 and 4 – These stages are considered “slow wave” sleep because the brain is moving into a deeper sleeping period. They occur primarily at the beginning of the night and decrease as the night goes on.
  • Rapid eye movement (REM) – This is the final stage of sleep which, in contrast to the previous stages, is an awake brain in a sleeping body. This stage occurs more often as the night goes on because there is a tiny part in the back of the brain that literally turns off our muscle tone when we reach this stage of sleep. “We cannot move during REM sleep,” Pilcher said. “An awake brain in a sleeping body is dreaming, which is an unconscious thought and is considered uncontrolled thinking that occurs during REM sleep.”

The continuity of sleep is experienced throughout stages 1 through 4. However, REM sleep is experienced throughout the entire night, in 90-minute intervals. Pilcher said our brain loves stories and our brain tries to make up stories out of our most random thoughts as the night progresses.

Circadian rhythms support sleep at night and remaining awake during the day and define 16 hours of wakefulness with eight hours of sleep. “When we disrupt this cadence by sleeping less or by performing shift work or experiencing jet lag, then we are going to pay a price,” Pilcher said.  “If we are sleep-deprived, we are more vulnerable to stress and anxiety and we don’t cope as well as we should.”

Pilcher offered the following tips for improving your slumber and suggested trying them for a few weeks and tracking any changes:

  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, seven days a week.
  • Banish the television and cellphone from your bedroom, which means using an alarm clock instead of your cellphone alarm to wake up.
  • Aim for 7 to 7.5 hours of sleep each night. Most people will feel better, be healthier and happier if they sleep at least that amount each night.·        Develop a pre-sleep ritual, which may include turning off the TV and electronics 30 minutes before bedtime, to avoid the blue screen effect; stop working an hour or two before bedtime; and read or perform a sequence of events that inform the brain that it’s ready to go to sleep.
  • Create a good sleep environment, including a dark bedroom, a comfortable bed and no interruptions.

“If you are still awake after 30 minutes, tossing and turning in bed and staring at the clock, get out of bed and do something like read a legal report that is boring you to death for about 30 minutes. Then, get back into bed and try to fall asleep again,” Pilcher said.

If you have tried all these steps and you are still having trouble sleeping, she recommends decreasing or changing the ambient lighting, and/or purchasing a new mattress and pillow.

“In the end, we have to prioritize sleep. We must make the choice to protect our sleep times. There is no other answer,” Pilcher said.

This program was co-sponsored by the ABA Young Lawyers Division and ABA CLE

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