How I Learned to Stop Stressing Over Sleep

Last summer was special for my wife and I because we welcomed our daughter into this world. 

In the months leading up to her birth, many people commented on the lack of sleep we should expect. The first night with our daughter was peaceful, and although we did sleep less than normal, it was nothing near what people had warned us about. “What were they talking about?” I wondered, feeling rested and eager to greet the day. On the second night, I found my answer. Sleep, it appeared, was now a distant comfort. 

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The following days encapsulated the challenges of being a parent and the sacrifices made to provide for our children. Shortly after the birth of our daughter, I started medical school. It was then that I began to lose sleep. 

Many people know that sleep is crucial to our mental state. Balancing medical school and the responsibility of being a parent has been one of the most stressful times in my life. 

Maintaining excitement for a new curriculum, changing diapers, and still finding time for family takes serious diligence. 

Upon starting medical school, sleep was the first thing to go. This was not a complete shock to my daily routine, considering the fact that sleep had been lost upon becoming a first-time father. Though I was sleep deprived my first semester, I quickly adapted thanks to two months of practice with our baby girl. 

The biggest difference between lack of sleep as a father and as a medical school student is the pressure that is found only in medical school. People say medical school is like drinking water from a fire hose. As a new parent, I was drinking from two firehoses at once. 

“Where does sleep fit into all of this?” I wondered. 

The truth is – it really doesn’t. 

It is not to say that I don’t ever get sleep, but I seem to experience more nights of sleep deprivation than my average peer. There are nights when studying until midnight is a success, but the night is just beginning. 

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Before my head hits the pillow, a cry from the crib reminds me that I have other duties to attend to. My day is never completely over, even after I’ve accomplished my goals for the day pertaining to school. 

Of course, I have the greatest help from my wife, but I want to be supportive; I want to stay up for our little girl in the middle of the night, even if I have class at eight in the morning. Despite my wishes, the reality is that I need sleep for my brain to achieve peak performance. 

So what happens when reality does not match the ideal? Well, you learn to manage. 

Some of the greatest minds in human history have shown us that sleep might not be the same for everyone. For example, Nikola Tesla was said to sleep for no more than two hours per night. He managed to function at a high capacity. Leonardo Da Vinci, who is regarded as one of the most talented people in history, had a sleep cycle that is often referred to as “The Da Vinci Sleep Schedule,” in which he slept no less than 20 minutes but no longer than two hours per session. In the end, he managed to get around five hours of sleep throughout the day. 

Unfortunately, these men seem to be extraordinary exceptions. While a lack of sleep seemed to almost ignite their creativity and effectiveness, many people are on the opposite side of the spectrum. I count myself as one of those people. I enjoy a long night of restful sleep. 

Since becoming a father and a medical student, however, there have been times when four or five hours of sleep feels like eight or ten hours. It’s not a full night, but it seems to be enough to get me through the day. 

How quickly does our body adapt to less sleep? Most medical students hate and try to avoid “it depends,” but… it depends. 

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In my short time as a medical student and a father I have come to know what sleepless nights feel like. At the same time, I have also learned more about the impact that stress has on the mind. 

These days sleep is highly studied. Researchers want to know the perfect number of hours for people to be more productive. I used to believe the magic bullet was eight hours, but ever since starting medical school, I’m now in the six hour camp. 

As I go through medical school, I have found other ways to engage my mind and make it more effective, even when I feel sleep would be more rewarding. 

In my opinion, stress deters our creativity more than a few lost hours of sleep a night. Personally, I have felt more tired due to stress than lack of sleep. I sense many people can relate. 

Sleep may alter our mood, but stress hinders our capacity to think clearly. 

Thus, I have managed to combat lack of sleep by combating stress. Where I can’t make up for sleep, I try to lessen the amount of stress I’m under. In doing so, I have found that my wife, my daughter, my family, my church, my friends and my hobbies help me get through the rigorous challenges of medical school. 

By learning how to manage my stress, six hours a night seem manageable. 

I’m thankful for that, because I don’t expect to get any more sleep anytime so

Juan Razo

Osteopathic Medical Student - 2nd Year (OMS II)
Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences

Juan Razo