Michigan Association of Health Plans

Sleep deprivation or burnout?

This story appeared in the University of Michigan Health Blog. Read more here

Am I sleep deprived or just plain burned out? Will getting more sleep help me feel less exhausted? Why am I still tired even though I get 8 hours of sleep most nights?

If you’ve ever asked yourself any of these questions, you’re not alone.

In fact, these are some of the questions sleep psychologist and wellness advocate Deidre Conroy, Ph.D., is frequently asked by her patients at the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Clinic in the University of Michigan Health Department of Psychology.

As expected, the answers aren’t black and white, she says.

“That’s because each of us is unique and the circumstances surrounding our sleep quality and overall lifestyle are very different.”

Conroy’s patients are often referred to her after they’ve consulted with a sleep disorder physician at Michigan Medicine. These patients have been tested for conditions such as sleep apnea or other disorders likely to affect sleep, she says.

“If a sleep disorder isn’t diagnosed, I work with patients to identify other underlying causes of their tiredness.”

Conroy shares important information about sleep deprivation versus overall fatigue and burnout, and what you can do to feel more rested.

There’s a difference between feeling sleepy and feeling tired or burned out
“I ask my patients to evaluate themselves,” said Conroy. “Could you fall asleep right now if you had the chance to lie down? Are you having trouble staying alert? These could be signs of inadequate sleep or compromised sleep quality.”

Feeling tired or burned out, on the other hand, may be the result of a range of factors that have nothing to do with inadequate sleep, she says, including, but not limited to:

Physical activity — either too much or not enough

Mental health issues such as anxiety, stress or depression

Certain medications

Nutritional issues

A person may have slept 8 hours, but still has trouble with wakefulness. For many, the body is fatigued but not sleepy.

SEE ALSO: 5 Tips for Better Sleep (Counting Sheep Not Required)

“For these patients, the answer isn’t necessarily to get more sleep, but to address the other underlying issues and work on those,” she said.

Your body may be tired but that doesn’t mean you’re able to sleep.
“We call this tired but wired,” said Conroy, noting that the majority of her patients fall into this category.

“These patients find it difficult to turn off their thoughts. Their mind races and they can’t shut it down. They feel exhausted but aren’t able to fall asleep.”

To further complicate matters, said Conroy, many patients are concerned about how their inability to sleep is affecting their health, resulting in even more stress and anxiety.

“The expectations of productivity in our culture are so high and can lead to stress and anxiety,” said Conroy, two key triggers in tired but wired situations.

Conroy sees another example of high expectations in her elderly patients who say they just don’t feel like they did 25 years ago.

“They’re tired and lack energy and may have unrealistic expectations of themselves.” For these individuals, more sleep isn’t always the answer, she says. “I suggest they consider a more tailored lifestyle that doesn’t require as much energy. But this is a delicate conversation. Many times people don’t want to slow down.”

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