According to the CDC, more than 1 in 3 Americans are sleep-deprived. Sleep deficiency leads to injuries, chronic diseases, mental illnesses, poor quality of life and lost work productivity. And yet, it is rarely addressed adequately in healthcare. Sleep Science Coach TJ Johnson is trying to change that. By using Neurolinguistic Programming, she empowers her clients to approach sleep in a new way.
Freddie Spotser, Client
A lack of sleep profoundly impacts health and also carries widescale economic repercussions. Insufficient sleep has an estimated economic cost of over $411 billion annually in the U.S.
It is hard to deny the value of sleep. We sleep. All animals sleep; fish sleep suspended in water. Plants sleep, becoming less active in the nighttime. Even single-celled organisms experience a “wake” and “sleep” state. Evolutionarily, the process of sleep has been preserved throughout time.
In humans, sleep deprivation causes high blood pressure, weight gain, an elevated risk for diabetes, memory issues, trouble with concentration, mood changes, weakened immunity, poor balance and a host of other issues. Sleep affects almost every tissue in our bodies.
As late as the 1950s, scientists believed that sleep was a time when body and brain activity began to slow down. When they studied the sleep process more closely with new technology, they discovered to their surprise that the brain animates with activity throughout the night. In 1952, the scientist Eugene Aserinsky discovered the rapid eye movement (REM) cycle of sleep, a segment when the brain is in an “active waking state during sleep.” It appears that during these hours, the brain creates and reorganizes connections between its 86 billion neurons.
Scientists still cannot definitively say why we sleep, though there are four prominent theories, each with supporting evidence.
The Inactivity Theory posits that for survival, it was more prudent to be inactive at night to avoid becoming a predator’s dinner. Similarly, The Energy Conservation Theory suggests that sleep evolved to reduce a person’s energy during the hours when hunting for food would be less successful.
This theory is supported by the fact that the body decreases metabolism by 10% during sleep. It is also reflected in other species; Cats are crepuscular, mostly awake during dawn and dusk. Mice and other rodents are also crepuscular, suggesting cats have evolved to be awake during the hours their prey is most active.
The Restorative Theory suggests that during sleep, the body repairs and replenishes “cellular components necessary for biological functions that become depleted through the day.” Sleep is when most muscle repair, tissue growth and protein synthesis happen.
Finally, Brain Plasticity Theory suggests sleep allows the brain to undergo neural organization, form new connections and clean house of unimportant connections. This process may be why infants sleep most of the day and night.
The answer may lie in a combination of all four. Scientists have since then determined the number of physical processes our brain undergoes when we are asleep. More importantly, they know what happens when we do not get enough sleep. Sleep is fundamental, its scarcity affecting nearly every aspect of our well-being.
TJ Johnson, a Certified Sleep Science Coach, Alternative Healthcare Practitioner, and marriage family therapist trainee, recognized the lack of attention sleep still receives within the scientific and medical community. She jumped at the opportunity when she was offered a chance to learn more about sleep science. She now helps clients attain better sleep using a holistic approach, synthesizing her therapy background with current developments in sleep science.
Freddie Spotser, an early participant in the Better Sleep Program, credits Johnson for her newfound restful sleep.
“A Sleep Science Consultant is not just for those suffering from chronic insomnia. It can be helpful for people like me who just want more sleep! The coaching I received at A Better Snooze was customized to my particular needs and preferences, which I so appreciated. It was also flexible by accounting for different circumstances that could affect my sleep habits. I was given specific instructions on how to go back to sleep if I woke up in the middle of the night or if I was nervous about a big meeting that was coming up. I gained several key insights through the process, which helped me get somewhere between 1-1.5 extra hours of sleep per night on average. These insights unlocked the formula for maximizing my sleep and fueled a motivation to adopt other healthy habits. Overall, TJ listened to my issues and helped me solve them based on methods that made sense to me. I am pleased with the results and can say I’ve never slept better than I have in the time since working with A Better Snooze.”
In her practice, TJ Johnson approaches each client with an individualized plan. The standardized assessment process considers several emotional, behavioral and physical contributing factors. Some are not immediately obvious. For instance, she may ask a client if they are getting enough sunlight.
“We have to figure out if there is an alternative for them to be able to get that light source that they need so that their body can recognize that it’s truly daytime, you know, at the appropriate time, and it can keep that circadian rhythm in sync. Especially for clients with sunlight sensitivity, we have to get creative about solutions around this aspect.”
We associate sleep with nighttime and darkness, but we forget to consider the importance of daytime. Our circadian rhythm, which is the body’s internal clock, is thrown off balance when we do not have a period of sunlight to delineate a time for wakefulness.
Some medications have insomnia and other nighttime issues listed in their side effects that a client may be unaware of. It is also essential to consider a client’s nutrition and fitness regime. She may ask questions like what time of day a client is exercising. Johnson says that when we exercise too late in the evening, “that raises cortisol levels which is counterintuitive” to what the body needs to sleep.
Cortisol is the primary stress hormone. The release of cortisol heightens the sensitivity of our sympathetic nervous system, in colloquial terms, our flight-or-fight response. In sleep, we aim to increase the activity of our parasympathetic system, known for rest-and-digest. This switch is why heart rate and blood pressure drop during restorative sleep.
Johnson also uses her education in marriage and family therapy and Neurolinguistic Programming experience to help clients address the emotional elements of sleep disturbances. Sometimes clients may suffer from anxiety, trauma or repressed, unprocessed emotions. They may ruminate, unable to fall asleep. They may wake up in the middle of the night to use the restroom but struggle falling back asleep since “now they’re awake and their mind has time to, you know, toil and turn.” Johnson acknowledges how our unconscious mind is made to protect us. Our learnings from negative experiences can keep us stuck in unhelpful patterns and hold us back from developing new strategies. It is possible that the last time we may have behaved a certain way, we faced a negative consequence. She focuses on helping clients transform their minds to a more positive state and develop new strategies to get restful sleep.
“That’s where the emotional aspect comes in. We look at a couple of different strategies that we can deploy, and it’s all under the umbrella of neurolinguistic programming, which is a communication technique that helps guide and shape our thinking, which then, of course, shapes our behavior.”
In the case of repressed emotions such as anger, fear, sadness, guilt and other intense emotions, a technique is used to release the emotions quickly—usually in one session. What clients love most is that they do not have to spend a lot of time talking about their experiences.
“Some clients have been victims of deeply traumatic experiences, such as sex-trafficking, other sexual crimes or even survivors of war. Of course, all of that trauma runs through the mind, often at the unconscious level, especially at night. This can show up in the form of night terrors for some clients, while other clients just have a hard time falling asleep or staying asleep. You know the nighttime is when it is really most vivid for them. So now we have to figure out how do we rewire the brain so that these experiences no longer hold power over clients. So thinking about sleep, how do we create an alternative way of looking at sleep, and how do we create a more helpful state of mind for these clients so that when they settle down for sleep, it’s a positive internal representation versus that negative one they’ve been anchored in for so many years.”
Together, these elements allow Johnson to create an individualized solution to a common problem. One of Johnson’s solutions is hypnosis. She uses this to establish new behavior and help the unconscious form new strategies to tackle some sleep challenges. Hypnosis and neurolinguistic programming “bypasses the conscious mind and goes directly to the unconscious mind, and that’s why it’s so effective and quick.” This brain rewiring helps a client become a much more empowered person beyond utilizing traditional talk therapy alone.
This symbiosis of the emotional and physical elements calls us to a new way of thinking about and approaching sleep. According to Johnson, some of the health impacts of insufficient sleep may not appear immediately but can be devastating in the long term.
“I think that some people really underestimate a lack of sleep, and I think this is maybe for a variety of reasons, maybe because some of the impacts are not immediately felt or people don’t realize the immediate results. And you know, it’s that immediate gratification, right? If you can’t see it right now, then it doesn’t exist, and we’re not concerned about it, but we’re seeing a really sharp increase in certain epidemics like Alzheimer’s and other neurological disorders.”
Scientists have found that one of the things the brain does during sleep is clear toxins and consolidate memories. When the brain does not have adequate time to flush those toxins, it becomes more susceptible to neurological disorders.
People would also be surprised to learn that sleep has a role in weight management. Sleep throws off two hormones that affect hunger and appetite regulation—leptin and ghrelin. Johnson says, “we throw those hormones out of whack, and it’s harder for our bodies to feel satiated after a meal. So we end up eating not only more, but we also tend to crave more of the wrong types of foods.” We feel fatigued and reduce our amount of exercise, and it becomes harder to maintain a certain weight. There is a strong correlation between the lack of sleep and obesity.
“There was a study on states that sleep the least, like states that sleep seven hours or less. And you look at that and correlate it to the obesity rate and, you know, there seems to be a linkage there.”
Johnson says that inadequate sleep can also affect our professional lives; it becomes extremely difficult to maintain focus, and memory begins to falter. It takes much longer to finish tasks when we are working and sleep-deprived. What may have taken an hour in the past may now take several, and there is a large economic impact on employers. For example, employers with 1,000 employees can expect to lose more than $1 million annually in lost productivity.
Sleep deprivation also leads to drowsy driving, causing more than 6,000 yearly car crash fatalities in the U.S. alone. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration states that we may not even have the actual number of accidents it causes since people are reluctant to admit to falling asleep at the wheel.
The lack of sleep also affects mood. When we are tired, little things set us off. Being short-tempered impacts intimacy, empathy and compassion. It can affect our relationships.
Johnson says that the role of sleep in a person’s well-being is still not fully appreciated. Doctors, therapists and psychologists do not always look at sleep as a genesis for other presenting symptoms in a patient. Even the general sleep quality of the population diminished during the pandemic, with so many people losing loved ones, working in isolation, and remotely staring at bright computer screens for prolonged periods.
Johnson is grateful for and appreciative of her parents, who had a different background than she did growing up but raised her in a way that broke generational cycles, giving her a better chance. One of the first things that drew her to sleep science was seeing her family members having difficulty falling asleep, especially on her father’s side. Her grandmother would sit up in bed for hours and cajole other people to come keep her company, especially near the end of her life. She helped her father with his sleep and now is helping a larger community.
TJ Johnson’s unique approach takes into account an individual’s mental state, sleep hygiene and general health. By reaching and retraining the unconscious mind, she is able to provide lasting results for her clients.
To learn more about A Better Snooze click here or get in touch with a call or text to (832) 810-8034.
Moumita Basuroychowdhury is a Contributing Reporter at The National Digest. After earning an economics degree at Cornell University, she moved to NYC to pursue her MFA in creative writing. She enjoys reporting on science, business and culture news. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.