Lack of sleep is more dangerous than you think (Op-Ed)

In the ethereal realm of cinema, where the boundaries of reality intertwine with the threads of imagination, exist thrillers centered around the haunting specter of sleep deprivation. Within these heart-pounding narratives, characters teeter on the precipice of exhaustion, their minds and bodies pushed to the limits of endurance.

We have all seen thrillers and horror movies based on sleep-deprived characters. The global hysteria in Awake after humans lose their ability to sleep; the horrifying hallucinations of five prisoners who are compelled to stay awake in The Sleep Experiment; and the chaos that insomnia brings to the life of Trevor Reznik in The Machinist.  These films are all fiction, but the stories they tell are true.

In the haunting narratives of sleep-deprivation-based thrillers, we find a reflection of our own vulnerability to the effects of inadequate rest. The twisted visions and distorted realities that plague characters in these films bear an eerie semblance to the genuine psychological disturbances that arise from prolonged sleeplessness.

Let’s delve deeper into some stories that weren’t scripted but rather unfolded in the tapestry of real life. Three stories that cast a spotlight on the haunting consequences of the sleep-deprived mind.

In the annals of the effects of sleep deprivation, few stories are as legendary as that of Randy Gardner, a San Diego teenager who, in pursuit of a school science project, embarked on an audacious quest to defy the realm of sleep. For 11 days and 24 minutes, Gardner remained awake. As the days wore on, the fabric of reality began to fray. Hallucinations writhed in the corners of his vision, manifesting themselves as phantom spiders that danced upon the edges of his perception. His experiment, under the watchful eyes of sleep researchers, unveiled a profound truth: the mind, deprived of its essential reprieve, succumbs to the siren song of delusion. Randy was the best-documented Guinness World Record holder for sleeplessness; however, after the experiment was over, Randy later reported suffering from years of unbearable insomnia.

In another instance of sleep deprivation, radio presenter Peter Tripp embarked on a peculiar endeavor to raise funds for a children’s foundation. Sealed within a glass booth in Times Square, he broadcasted his radio show for a staggering 201 hours straight. By day three, Tripp’s mind fractured; a victim of hallucinations and paranoia. Spiders, similar to those of Randy Gardner, also crawled within his shoes, and the boundary between reality and delusion blurred beyond recognition. Upon emerging from his glass prison, the aftermath of Tripp’s experiment proved hauntingly enduring. Divorce, job loss, and accounts from his family and friends saying he was a changed man became the legacies of a mind unmoored from the shores of rest.

Last but not least, a study in 2013, orchestrated by Swedish researchers, sought to unveil the effects of sleep deprivation. Photographs captured five men and five women after a normal night’s sleep, and again after enduring the unrelenting march of 31 hours without reprieve. The images spoke volumes, revealing a canvas of sadness etched upon the sleep-deprived countenances.

The true horrors of sleep deprivation seen in these three stories, however, are only a fraction of how sleeplessness affects our society today.  Lack of sleep is dangerous when practiced for 200 hours just as much as one night; constantly inflicting tangible harm upon memory, cognition, emotional stability, and overall health.

So much so that the Guinness Book of Records stopped certifying attempts, believing it could be dangerous to people’s health. In fact, sleep deprivation is constantly used as torture: In 2005, the CIA admitted to authorizing up to 180 hours of continuous sleep deprivation during interrogations.

But let’s not let this fool us into thinking 24 hours of sleep deprivation isn’t just as bad. A lack of sleep means more than being exhausted. One of the established consequences of sleep deprivation is a worse mood, and sleep deprivation is being categorized as a “serious mental health issue”.

The challenges of sleeplessness extend far beyond mere restlessness, weaving a complex tapestry of afflictions that ensnare both mind and soul. When sleep evades, anxiety, depression, and even suicidal thoughts become more prone to appear, seeping into the crevices of consciousness. 

This fragile state can trigger psychotic episodes that unleash mania, paranoia, and a cacophony of dissonance. Isolation follows suit, a consequence of energy sapped and connections frayed. Mundane tasks also tend to transform into mountains, casting a shadow over the landscape of daily existence.

It is important to remember that, according to Healthline, just 24 hours without sleep causes altered perception, memory deficits, impaired judgment, and more.

So, in the haunting wake of these recounted narratives and awakening facts, let’s make sleep a priority.


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