A Sleep Doc Says There Are Worse Things Than Not Getting Enough Sleep


It’s 2024, and everywhere you look, someone is warning you of the dangers of not sleeping. The saying, “You can sleep when you’re dead,” has been replaced by relentless messaging that you’ll soon be dead if you don’t sleep. But what if someone told you that losing sleep isn’t actually worth losing sleep over?

That someone is New York City-based sleep psychologist Joshua Tal, PhD. He says that while sleep may not have been adequately prioritized historically—hence the whole “sleep when you’re dead” vibe—the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction in recent years, leading to an overemphasis on sleep. He attributes this phenomenon to the rise of wellness culture, as well as to Google and social media algorithms that reward content promoting the dangers of not sleeping.

According to Dr. Tal, this constant fear-mongering is causing people to put far too much pressure on themselves to catch adequate ZZZs every single night of the week, with somewhat ironic results. “What ends up happening is people care too much about sleep, and if you care too much about sleep, then you end up not sleeping,” he says.

For this reason, he tells clients that while it’s important to prioritize sleep, it’s also important to avoid over-prioritizing sleep. Instead, he says, you should practice telling yourself that missing a night of sleep is NBD. In fact, it’s normal. And because sleep is a biological need, your body will make it happen eventually.

Dr. Tal acknowledges just how radical and counterintuitive this mindset might be. After all, anyone who’s ever battled the insomnia monster knows how anxiety-inducing it can be to toss and turn all night, and not just because there are health consequences. It’s also just effing miserable to face a too-busy day without sleep.

But here again, Dr. Tal wants you to challenge your thinking. Of course, he says, it is harder to get through a day on no sleep, but it’s also not likely to be as bad as you think it is. “Really, it’s just anticipation anxiety because when you look back, surely there are times where you didn’t sleep and you were fine the next day, or there were times where you did sleep and you still made mistakes,” he says. “It’s definitely uncomfortable, but it’s not worth the anxiety people have around it.”

In fact, he says, the same energy that keeps you up all night is actually likely to power you through the following day—so you’ll be fine. This may sound crazy, but if you’ve experienced sleepless nights in the past, you might know it to be true; there’s a tweaky feeling after a night of sleep loss that, while not exactly optimal, does seem to help propel you.

Widespread sleep hysteria isn’t the only slumber-related messaging Dr. Tal wants to debunk. The use of sleeping pills could be knocking you out but not giving you restful shut-eye. Studies have indicated that sleeping pills have the potential to disrupt REM sleep, which is important for memory, cognitive processing, and brain development. He also says that common wisdom around sleep hygiene—a.k.a. certain routine behaviors intended to help you sleep, like going to bed at the same time every night—can be misguided as well.



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