We all know sleep is a necessary part of life. When I talk to neurodivergent people about routines and schedules, the first thing I discuss is the importance of sleep. My people with anxiety or ADHD often suffer from a lack of sleep. For some, they have a hard time turning their brain off to settle in; for others, worry nags at them keeping them awake. They’re so used to getting by on less than they need that they don’t consider the dangers of lack of sleep.
When I talk about lack of sleep, I’m not talking about the occasional day that you can’t fall asleep. I’m also not talking about new parents (we know you don’t get enough sleep). When the lack of sleep extends for days or weeks or if it’s the only life you’ve known, you might not even be aware of the negative effects it’s having on your life.
If you already struggle with executive functioning, lack of sleep or poor quality sleep will make it harder. Executive functioning for neurodivergent people requires extra focus and energy, especially when you’re just learning how to go from dysfunction to functioning.
Without enough sleep, you might experience some of the following physical effects:
- Blurry vision
- Color vision deficiency
- Fuzzy brain
- Dark circles under your eyes
- Trembling hands
- Weight gain
- Sluggish reactions
Mental and Emotional effects
Lack of sleep can also impact your mental and emotional well-being:
- Memory loss
While some of these effects might not seem like a big deal, they compound and often exacerbate the symptoms or characteristics of their neurodivergence. For example, lack of sleep often leads to making rash decisions. If you already have impulse control issues because of your ADHD, lack of sleep might make this worse.
Impatience and irritability also get worse with a lack of sleep. Co-workers and loved ones will most likely excuse a random day of crankiness. But irritability will increase and your short-temperedness will take its toll on your personal relationships.
If you don’t get enough sleep your brain will suffer. You are more likely to make mistakes at work and the quality of your performance will suffer. Again, a few bad days won’t ruin your career, but it could lead to ongoing substandard work. Colleagues will question your work ethic and your job could be in jeopardy.
Fixing your sleep
Once you get used to less sleep than you should have, you might not realize the effect it’s having on you. How can you figure it out? First, look over the list of negative effects above and see if any of them describe you. My next suggestion is to keep a sleep log. Track the number of hours of sleep you get each night and if possible, rank the quality of your sleep.
The next thing you need to think about is how much sleep you personally need to feel good and be at your best. I know the standard you hear is that you should get 8 hours of sleep. Personally, I feel like crap if I sleep for 8 hours. I function best on about 6-7 hours of sleep. I have some clients who really need 9 hours of sleep. The only way to figure this out is through practice and experience. Again, keeping a log or a tracker is a good way to help figure this out.
Once you know how much sleep you need, you need to implement a regular nighttime routine. I never realized how important this is until I was well into my 30s. I suffered from insomnia my whole life. Once I was asleep, I was fine, but falling asleep took hours. Hours! Even as a kid, I had this problem. My mom would send me to bed at 8:00 and at 11:00, I was still lying there listening to music. I couldn’t turn off my brain.
Once my kids all started sleeping through the night, I built a nighttime routine for myself. I take a shower. Then, I drink a glass of water while I read before bed. I read in bed, almost exclusively fiction (because I tend to want to take notes for nonfiction—it’s a learning thing). Fiction relaxes my brain because it takes me to a different place and gives me fictional people to care about. I can forget about my own life’s troubles. When my glass of water is done, I stop reading.
Okay, sometimes the story is so good, I keep going for a bit, but I’m primed for sleep. Once the light is off, I drift off in a reasonable amount of time.
My nighttime routine is pretty sacred to me. Even if I have a longer day and I’m heading to bed later than usual, I still try to follow the routine. I just take a faster shower or read for less time.
Building your nighttime routine
First, start with what time you need to get up in the morning, and subtract the number of hours of sleep you need. That will tell you what time you need to go to bed.
Once you build your routine, you will subtract that from your bedtime so you know what time to start your routine. I know I need to turn off my light no later than 12:15 am. My nighttime routine starts between 11-11:30 (but I’m a night owl).
Figuring out what should be part of your nighttime routine will require you to understand what is interfering with your sleep. For me, my brain had too much going on. I needed to quiet it. For some people, reading might make that worse. If reading isn’t your thing, you might try audiobooks, guided meditation, or music before bed.
If your body is fidgety, you might want to try meditation or some stretching or yoga before bed to relax.
If worry keeps you up, journaling might be a way to calm those worries. Often, worrisome thoughts will spike your anxiety and then you will spiral. If you allow yourself to have a specific amount of time to let the worry out, kind of like a brain dump for your worry, it might clear it from your head.
Some things to keep in mind: Avoid anything with blue light, like the TV, computer, or phone. Many people think scrolling TikTok is a fun way to relax, and it might be, but the blue light from your phone keeps your brain from quieting. Scrolling social media is a double whammy of blue light and negativity—you know social media is filled with comments and posts that don’t make your life better.
Do your best to find offline things to relax.
Once you have some things that help you relax, then you can finally build your routine. This is a process and it will take time to figure out the right amount of time you need for this to work. The important thing is that you stick with it. It’s fine to make adjustments—just don’t abandon it altogether.
As you work on improving your executive functioning, having the proper amount of sleep will help. It’s not going to fix everything for you, but it definitely won’t hurt. Lack of sleep, however, will have a negative impact on your executive functioning.