When you become a parent, sleep becomes currency. It’s the money we wish we had to alleviate the stress and physical pain from being awake too many hours out of the day. Sleep is a mirage taunting us to the point of frustration, anger, and madness. I’m talking about the cartoon version of wild-haired, wild-eyed, maniacal laughing madness.
Parents become the memes that were created to make us feel less alone in our sleep deprivation. But this stereotypical image comes with real and serious consequences. Instead of feeling supported in solidarity, our sleep deprivation is making us feel lonely.
A study published in Nature Communications showed the connection between loneliness and sleep loss. The in-laboratory portion of this study used 18 healthy individuals and alternated their sleeping conditions. A night of rest was followed by a night of sleep deprivation. During the experiment, participants were asked to perform an in-real-life social task with another human and then were asked to interact with people through computer simulation.
During these interactions, participants’ brains were being monitored with fMRI scans; the degree of physical closeness a participant wanted to get to another during both real and simulated interactions were being measured too. Those being studied were then asked to answer open-ended questions in a recorded interview.
One online phase of this study, administered through Amazon Mechanical Turk, tested 138 participants over two nights and two days, allowing participants to sleep as they chose. The goal was to see what results yielded in regards to sleep quality and not quantity. The participants kept sleep logs and completed questionnaires about their social behaviors and loneliness.
In the second online phase of this experiment, over 1,000 people unaware of the goals of the study were asked to watch the in-lab recorded interviews. They were asked how they felt when watching and were asked to rate the loneliness of each person they watched on screen. The findings showed that if one perceived another as lonely, they felt lonely too. And the ones perceived as lonely were also the ones who were sleep deprived.
The study confirmed that our loneliness causes withdrawal and social isolation; when sleep deprived people were asked to interact with one another or had a simulated figure come at them on a computer screen more distance was always kept compared to a well-rested person in the same scenario. This perpetuates both the feeling of being alone and actually being separated from human contact.
Loneliness comes with risk factors like obesity, depression, alcoholism, suicidal thoughts, and a compromised immune system. I wasn’t surprised by the link between feeling isolated and wanting to stay isolated, but the study surprised me with this: “If an individual is perceived as lonely, others will frequently disengage from interacting with them, resulting in a compounding cycle of social isolation.”
In other words, not only do we feel alone, but our loneliness triggers the same feelings in another, causing them to not want to interact with us.
I know the feeling of loneliness too well. It goes hand in hand with my anxiety and depression. And, yes, my addiction; I am an alcoholic in recovery. Our brains are powerful things. Mine often lies to me and tells me I am not worthy of the good in my life. Or it tells me I am not as good or talented as others think I am. And when I feel and think these things, I am weighed down by sadness and loneliness. I don’t sleep well. My thoughts keep me awake or they invade my dreams and don’t allow peaceful rest. And because I don’t sleep well, I don’t like to sleep. I have always struggled with this. And it’s safe to say my sleep deprivation has exacerbated my mental health struggles.
Because when I am tired, I get angry and then feel guilty for snapping at people. I become too hard on myself and fill my own bucket with shame and doubt. The weight of these feelings is heavy and just by existing I feel like I am asking others to carry the weight too. I know loved ones don’t think I am a burden, but it’s hard not to feel like one, especially when I am in the thick of another round of depression.
I know I can be a bummer to be around, and sometimes because of this, all I really want is to be alone. But sometimes I want to be able to sit in the presence of someone who understands, who, even if they’d rather be chilling with someone happier or even the happier version of me, will fight against their own brain’s desire to create space.
Parents joke that we stay up late just to have some quiet time after the kids go to sleep, but too much quiet time can cut into sleep time. If this becomes a pattern, sleep deprivation is likely to turn into personal isolation and loneliness, which are already part of being a parent.
As much as we love our kids, parenthood is hard. It’s mind-numbingly boring and overwhelming at times. We need to find people who will remind us of this, who will make us feel connected through shared experiences and the understanding that we are not alone.
And we need to sleep. Especially if you struggle with mental health, in which case sleep is a must. I am not saying it is an easy thing to achieve, but I know I am trying to be more mindful about the amount of shut-eye I get each night. I am also going to remind you and myself that the people around us love us in all our moods and conditions, but sometimes we might need to ask them sit a little closer.
Yes, our brains are powerful things, but our hearts are stronger. It’s okay to ask for the love you need. I know it’s exhausting, but it’s less lonely when we aren’t alone.