What if you could sleep yourself kind?

Learn how sleeping well helps you be the kind person you want to be.

Image by Signe Emma

In a letter to his ex-wife, Jack Kerouac wrote “Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now.”

Kindness — already the sound of the word makes you feel that you can let go, that you can relax and that you are safe. Receiving and giving kindness both engender ‘positive’ emotions, making us feel connected to others and thus safe in the world, safe in where we are in our life — to be ‘already in heaven now.’

Sometimes though, we struggle to be kind or to receive kindness from others. There are of course many reasons for this but one factor that is often overlooked in this context is sleep. Without sufficient time of peaceful slumber, our emotions, and related behaviours and reactions, can take a turn for the worse. But why is that?

To answer this let’s start by looking at what it means to be kind.

What does kindness actually mean?

Kindness in its original meaning referred to sameness. When someone is being kind, they have realised that the other is in the same boat as themselves. They know that, like themselves, the other is on a journey experiencing the inevitable ups and downs life brings. Being kind then also means connecting to and being accepting of the other and ourselves. We fully and whole-heartedly open ourselves up to the vulnerability that’s inherent to life.

What’s the role of empathy?

A core ingredient of kindness is empathy. We acknowledge and feel the suffering of the other. And by putting ourselves into her/ his shoes we share their emotions. Empathy has two components to it: a cognitive part (understanding another’s emotion objectively) and an emotional part (visceral experience; resonating with another person’s feelings while knowing that those are distinct from one’s own feelings). We are being empathetic when we attune to another person’s emotions and experiences cognitively and emotionally. This leads to a feeling of connectedness.

Empathy, and two its components, is associated with different networks in the brain. While we are being empathetic during the day in our social interactions with others around us (e.g. loved-ones, colleagues, strangers) we make use of these brain areas. The brain, just like the whole of the body, only has limited resources which need to be replenished on a daily basis. Sleep enables the brain to do exactly that: carry out its much-needed maintenance work. In other words, sleep is important for the healthy functioning of our brain, and it ensures that different brain regions communicate properly and work well together.

The jeopardy of inadequate sleep

Inadequate sleep, however, reduces functional connectivity of brain areas including those critical for empathy, thereby affecting empathy and emotional regulation more broadly. We struggle to understand what is going on within the other person, what they might be thinking and feeling. We are no longer able to accurately read other people’s facial expressions. This could mean we fail to notice a friendly smile or a compliment, but it can also mean we feel threatened much more quickly.

And when we feel threatened, well, we aren’t going to be nice nor will we ‘lean in’ to what others have to say. Instead we become defensive, irritable and anxious. These ‘negative’ feelings can be made worse because others might start to withdraw from us, and feelings of loneliness begin to rise. None of these emotions and experiences create a sense of sameness or kindness towards others, or a sense of inner calm. And that’s not a nice place to be in.

Sleep promotes social interaction

Elizabethan dramatist Thomas Dekker wrote that “Sleep is that golden chain that ties health and our bodies together.” I’d like to take it a step further adding that:

“Sleep is the social glue that ties society together.”

Sleeping well promotes more empathic responses and enables us to share the emotional state of those around us. As a result, it promotes acts of kindness towards others and towards ourselves, and this in turn, helps us feel more connected — bigger than just ourselves. More than that though, sleep acts as a barometer for our own emotional state, helping us to be the kind and empathic person we might aim to be. And that’s a much nicer place to be in.

Now you know why you are so grumpy and unkind when we haven’t had a good night’s sleep, what can you do to support your sleep (and relationships)?

Here are four simple habits to help you look after your sleep and your kind self.

1. Keep your sleep times regular

I know it’s tempting to have long lie-ins on the weekend or finish the 6-part Netflix series you started the night before. But keeping your sleep times regular and sleeping during your personal sleep window will give you the most efficient sleep and rest.

2. Seek natural light

Natural light helps to keep your body clock in sync with the external world as well as keeping all the various internal processes of your body aligned with one another. Especially morning light is a powerful time cue!

3. Develop a mindful attitude

Noticing when you feel low or grumpy enables you to actually choose how to respond rather than ‘blindly’ acting on your low or grumpy mood. By becoming more aware you will also notice how your alertness and sleepiness change throughout the day. Learn to train your attention through daily meditation. This can also help to settle your mind when it’s racing at night.

4. Make and take some ‘me time’

Life’s busy, and with a never-ending list of demands being placed upon us we are in constant doing mode. Make and take a moment to simply pause, maybe for as long as a breath. Or fill it with a mouth-watering activity. Choose what you want to do, making it something personally meaningful and fulfilling.

Coming back to Jack Kerouac, the long and short of it is that if you look after your sleep then you also take steps towards being kinder both to others and to yourself — to being “already in heaven.” And who wouldn’t want that?

Do you have any questions how empathy and being kind interact with sleep and the circadian clock? Send me an email or book an initial call with me. 


Dr Kat