Why Sleep Isn’t A Waste of Time (and Why You Should Get More)
As if being a law student or attorney were not stressful enough, the global COVID-19 pandemic has ratcheted up anxieties (both large and small) ten-fold. We are all adjusting to new norms on a daily basis and, from double-layered masks to meditation, workout routines to television binging, we all have coping mechanisms that give us a sense of control. One tool in the arsenal of wellness and stress relief that is perennially overlooked is sleep. Unfortunately, we’re in a sleep crisis already: According to the CDC, one-third of adults in the U.S. fail to get the recommended amount of sleep each night—and that’s not even looking specifically at law students (who juggle academic deadlines, clinic work, and extracurricular activities), or attorneys, the second-most sleep deprived profession in the U.S.
Enter the pandemic and we now face, according to sleep therapist Dr. Donn Posner, a “perfect storm of sleep problems.” Good sleep literally primes you to learn and helps you to process and remember information (even better than all-nighters). Bad sleep (or the lack of sleep) can increase attention lapses by 400 percent, cause you to interpret facial neutral facial expressions as negative, and, not to be alarmist, can even kill you. In other words, we need to wake up on the benefits of better sleep.
Attorney Well-Being for Gibson Dunn
In late 2019, Gibson Dunn doubled down on its efforts to enhance the well-being of our attorneys by consciously rolling out a comprehensive, global wellness program. After countless discussions with Gibson Dunn personnel at all levels, we developed a multi-faceted wellness program that tackles components as varied as stress management, resilience, mental health, physical fitness, nutrition, and financial wellness. Given sleep’s significant effect on physical and mental health, as well as the ability of a person to manage and deal with stress, we recognized at the forefront that an effective wellness program has to provide for an effective sleep health education and management component. Below, we touch on the physiology of sleep (explaining why it’s so impactful on your daily life) and then provide sleep tips that we’ve developed as one piece of our overall wellness strategy.
Physiology of Sleep
It is not uncommon for professionals to admit they struggle with getting in a sufficient amount of sleep. We all know we physiologically need to sleep more, but not as many know why. Sleep is defined as a state in which brain wave activity changes and our nervous system is less reactive to external stimuli. In order to maintain homeostasis in the human body we need a balance of wakefulness and sleep. During a state of wakefulness, neurochemicals work their way through our subcortical neural formations, stimulating our ascending arousal system and triggering the release of various neurochemicals. These can include serotonin and dopamine, “feel good” neurochemicals that are essential for stress management. An extended period of wakefulness, however, also floods the body with cortisol, the stress hormone. Sleep allows the brain to strengthen neural connections and clear out excessive neurochemicals. That’s part of the reason why cognitive function and the ability to manage stress levels is greatly compromised when sleep is compromised.
Beyond increasing the ability to mitigate and even control stress, sleep also enhances the brain’s cognitive efficiency, with attendant gains in memory formation and analytical prowess. The neurological system processes information along chains of neurons. Neurons themselves are covered in an insulating layer of tissue called the myelin sheath, which ensures that electrical impulses of information can move quickly through each neuron. The breakdown of myelin sheaths they can lead to neurological disorders that manifest in forgetfulness, such as Alzheimers and other dementias. Destruction of the myelin sheath can also lead to cerebrovascular diseases including stroke, migraines, and other headache disorders. Sleep increases the reproduction of oligodendrocytes, cells that reproduce the myelin in our neurons, and is thus essential for maximizing cognitive function in both the short- and long-term.
Maximizing Your Own Sleep
Most people intuitively know that getting sleep is important (or at least makes you feel better) but a dearth of publicity about the concrete harms that a lack of sleep can cause has led a lot of people to make sleep health a lower priority. This has massive negative repercussions on both the micro and macro level (to the tune of about $411 Billion in lost productivity in the U.S. each year). Intentional habit changes can reverse these losses and improve well-being through more restorative sleep. “Sleep hygiene,” the umbrella term for positive sleep habits, is something that may draw your thoughts to anything from crisp sheets to sleep supplements. In actuality, sleep hygiene involves changing your sleep environment and habits to foster quality sleep, resulting in a consistent 24-hour circadian rhythm.
Effective Sleep Hygiene Routines Include:
- Sleep Environment
- Sleep in a cool room, and/or avoid wearing layers to bed to encourage the body’s natural tendency to cool down in the evening (a signal to release melatonin).
- Use blackout curtains and/or a white noise machine or ear plugs to help mute distracting visual and audio commotion.
- Sleep Nutrition
- Avoid alcohol consumption before bed, as it can disrupt REM sleep (essential for creativity and forming connections) and contribute to fluctuations in blood sugar that may wake you up.
- Similarly, move dinnertime up to allow your body to begin digesting before winding down for sleep.
- Moderate other liquid consumption just before bed to minimize nighttime trips to the restroom.
- Preparing Your Brain for Sleep
- Eliminate, to the extent possible, electronic device screen time at least 45 minutes before bed, as the dreaded “blue light” emitted by our phones and tablets inhibits melatonin.
- Ward off racing thoughts by implementing a bedtime transition routine that emphasizes reading evening content that is light and minimally stressful.
- Set an alarm to begin your bedtime routine and ensure you get a minimum amount of sleep each night. (We set an alarm to wake up, why not set an alarm to begin your bedtime routine?)
*Pro tip: set several alarms in increments of 15 minutes starting at the hour before you want to be in bed. You will find that as soon as the first alarm rings, you will be reminded of all the last minute things you intended to get done in the day and these staggered alarms allow you to set priorities for the next day and then to put the to-do list aside.
It is important to recognize that implementing a perfect sleep routine in the middle of a pandemic while shifting to a work-from-home lifestyle and re-thinking many aspects of your work and personal life cannot be done all at once. Bedtime can be unpredictable. Emails, children, pets, and other life factors will inevitably interrupt your rhythm at some point. Start by implementing one habit to see if it makes a difference and then add one or two in the following week. If something doesn’t work, don’t be discouraged and continue to make incremental improvements. If nothing seems to work, make sleep a priority by starting a sleep journal (apps such as “Pillow” and “Sleep Cycle” that can make this journaling convenient and easy) and, if necessary, seeking professional resources. Through it all, remember, this is your sleep: do what feels right for you and set aside what does not.
At Gibson Dunn, our guiding approach to overall wellness has been to encourage our own personnel to seek homeostasis and restore wellness autonomy. Sleep is a necessary and important part of that. Small steps and gradual habit changes can make all the difference in the long-term quality of your sleep health, your resilience to stress, and your life outlook overall.
 Weiss, Debra Cassens. “Law is Second-Most Sleep-Deprived Profession, Federal Survey Finds.” ABAJournal.com, https://www.abajournal.com/news/article/law_is_second-most_sleep_deprived_profession_federal_survey_finds/ (Accessed August 24, 2020).
 Simon, Clea. “Insomnia in a Pandemic.” The Harvard Gazette, https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/04/sleep-problems-becoming-risk-factor-as-pandemic-continues/ (Accessed August 24, 2020).
 For example, participants who slept after learning a new skill show a 30 percent improvement over participants who were not allowed to sleep in between learning and testing. See Walker, Matthew. Why We Sleep. Scribner, 2018.
About the Authors
James Keshavarz is the Global Wellness Director for Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP. He has his Master of Science Degree in Exercise Science and Health Promotion. As a former Professor of Kinesiology and Health Sciences James conducts the majority of the lectures on Wellness for Gibson Dunn. He is a United States Air Force Reservist serving in the 752nd Medical Squadron as a Health Services Manager and Resiliency Trainer. James won the 452 Air Mobility Wing “Airman of the Year” award in 2018.
Melissa de Carvalho is a graduate of the University of Michigan and alumna of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. Her experience includes creating, managing, and enhancing corporate wellness programs for major companies until she entered the legal world of wellness in 2019. As the Global Wellness Manager for ABA signatory Gibson Dunn, she has co-designed the Wellness Program, which includes a comprehensive and integrative approach that challenges the status quo of well-being programs.