Suffering from sleep deprivation due to kids, work or something else? You are basically permanently drunk, but try not to take out your ‘hangover’ out on others.

Lack of sleep can affect us in many ways, but did you know in some ways it is the equivalent of being drunk?


I love my children, but boy, do they keep me up at night. I reckon over the last three years, 98% of my nights have involved being woken up multiple times, often for stretches of 30 minutes plus. The other 2% of the time I am away at conferences. Things were just settling down with our last one (by settle down, I mean just up once a night) when we had the next one. I think my partner has it even worse at the moment with our four month old!

Now, I’m not whining here (well, much) – the trade off between losing sleep and the sheer pleasure of having kids is more than fair. Nor am I going to touch the the best way of sleep training kids (or not) debate. But, I am quite interested in how this common form of sleep deprivation affects us. Basically, sleep deprivation – either from episodes of chronic sleep deprivation (a missed nights sleep) or cumulative sleep debt (losing a bit of sleep over many nights, or very poor quality sleep) affects us in a number of ways. Existing research has identified a number of cognitive and performance effects of sleep deprivation. For instance, our attention and vigilance becomes impaired and our focus more narrow, our ability to consolidate memories declines, as does our our ability to recall information under stress [1,2,3]. Some of my own research in this area shows we also get more tolerant of risk – among a sample of Army Reservists (who, lets be honest, should be better at this sort of sleep deprivation than most of us), betting behaviour suggested that although they recognized some bets as risky, they went ahead and bet on them heavily anyway[4]. They also got much worse at recognizing faces[5], and became less creative problem solvers[6] – relying on tried and true solutions even when far better ones were obvious to everyone else. This latter ironically affected me whilst I was writing up the paper-we kept a bunch of baby paraphernalia downstairs in the day, and kept going down to get them at night instead of simply taking them upstairs in the first place!

Interestingly, the cognitive effects of sleep deprivation is pretty similar to the cognitive effects of alcohol consumption. Indeed, some researchers[7] have suggested that being awake for 17-19 hours can impair vigilance and tasks which require dividing attention to a similar extent as being drunk to the UK drink-drive limit. So, in many ways, those of us not getting enough sleep are, functionally at least, wandering around drunk! You wouldn’t (I hope!) dream of driving a car in this state, but we by necessity do many other important tasks, which require equal ability.

Like drinking, being tired all the time can also effect our mood. We get short tempered and grumpy, less understanding of other foibles, and generally less pleasant to others. When you’ve not had much sleep for many nights, it’s easy for it for you to to be unreasonable with those closest to you – like your partner and even your kids. I hope that, knowing a bit more about how sleep deprivation can affect me makes me less likely to make silly mistakes, or a sense of perspective when I get grumpy. Alas, this is not always the case. Sometimes, you just need to dig a bit deeper, and remember and appreciate all the good things you have – an approach summed up in a lovely blog entry by homeschooler, blogger and recent (to me) inspiration, Sarah (aka thugsandruffians) which you can find here; . Go on, read it!

So, lets all of us try to avoid operating heavy machinery when we shouldn’t, betting on blackjack when we are tired and, perhaps most importantly, missing life as it passes us by in a tired grump!

Being awake for 17-19 hours can impair performance to a similar extent as being drunk! Click To Tweet
[1] Ferguson, S.A., Paech, G.M., Dorrian, J., Roach, G.D., & Jay, S.M. (2011). Performance on a simple response time task: Is sleep or work more important for miners? Applied Ergonomics, 42, 2010-213.
[2] Lim, J., & Dinges, D.F. (2010). A meta-analysis of the impact of short-term sleep deprivation on cognitive variables, Psychological Bulletin, 136, 375-389.
[3] Kilgore, W.D., Grugle, N.L., Kilgore, D.B., Leavitt, B.P., Watlington, G.I., McNair., S. & Balkin, T.J. (2008). Restoration of risk-propensity during sleep deprivation: Caffeine, dextroamphetamine, and modafinil. Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine, 79, 867-874.
[4 ] Frings, D. (2012). The effects of sleep debt on risk perception, risk attraction and betting behavior during a blackjack style gambling task. Journal of Gambling Studies, 28, 393-403.
[5] Frings, D. (2015). The effects of low levels of fatigue on face recognition among individuals and team members. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 45, 461-470.
[6 ] Frings, D. (2011). The effects of group monitoring on fatigue-related einstellung during mathematical problem solving. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 17, 371.
[7] Williamson, A. M., & Feyer, A. M. (2000). Moderate sleep deprivation produces impairments in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 57, 649-655.
Sleepy heads by  OpenClipartVectors c.o. Pixabay

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