Get to know psychologist and professor Dr. Joti Samra.
You specialize in so many interesting areas of psychology: Is there something about treating sleep issues that stands out from treating other illnesses?
Sleep is such an important factor for all of us when it comes to our overall physical and emotional health – and there is a bidirectional relationship. When sleep is disrupted, we are more likely to be impacted physically – we experience low energy and fatigue, we are more likely to get sick, and we generally feel unwell. We are also more likely to feel low or depressed, and worried or anxious. Similarly, when we are struggling emotionally – either with ongoing stress, or more serious symptoms of depression and anxiety, sleep is often one of the first areas of our life that gets impacted.
Can you tell us about the impact of stress and/or worry on sleep? Why does it play such a great role and what can we do about it?
Chronic stress and worries (about work, finances, relationships) impact our sleep tremendously – often resulting in trouble falling asleep, and trouble staying asleep. Chronic stress and worries affect our thinking patterns, and result in us excessively ruminating and getting into a ‘worry cycle’ – especially right before sleep and if we waken during the night. The state of worry gets us into a physiologically aroused ‘flight or flight state’ – and that state of arousal is incompatible with the relaxed state we need to be in to sleep.
Is someone is having trouble sleeping, where would you recommend they go for help first why?
Start by identifying the sources of worry and stress in your life – and make a plan for proactively addressing those stressors. Specifically articulate the areas of your life that are creating stress and create actionable, realistic plans for how to tackle those issues.
I think there’s a lot of misinformation out there about common sleep disorders such as insomnia, narcolepsy and restless leg syndrome. Can you set us straight? What are these disorders?
- Insomnia is characterized by difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep and/or early-morning awakenings. Individuals with insomnia feel unrefreshed upon awakening, and feel fatigued during the day. The most effective treatment for insomnia is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) that focuses on thoughts/worries about sleep and behavioural sleep patterns (and impact on emotional state).
- Restless leg syndrome is a sensory disorder characterized by an irresistible urge to move one’s legs (and sometimes arms) due to uncomfortable, tingling, or creeping sensations. Treatment includes the minimization/reduction of caffeine, nicotine and alcohol; iron replacement; exercise/stretching; and, warm baths or cold packs.
- Narcolepsy is a rare sleep disorder characterized by frequent periods of sleepiness (both gradual and sudden sleep attacks), sometimes associated with cataplexy (muscle weakness). Treatment includes stimulant pharmacotherapy and stress management.
- Sleep apnea is a common but underdiagnosed, possibly life-threatening sleep disorder that primarily impacts men who are overweight, have a thick neck girth, and are heavy snorers. The primary feature of obstructive sleep apnea is a partial blockage of airways causing abnormal breathing patterns and sleep disruptions (e.g., repeatedly stopping breathing in the night). Treatment includes weight loss; minimization of alcohol; and treatment by a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine at bedtime.
Many of us travel a lot for work and suffer from jet lag. Can you provide some tips on how best to handle this issue?
Jet lag refers to disruptions in the body’s internal biological clock (circadian rhythms) due to crossing time zones. Some tips to minimize jet lag include:
- Adjusting to the new time zone 2-3 days before travel (e.g., shift bedtime, wake-time and mealtimes).
- Ensure you are getting adequate sleep before travel (as a pre-existing “sleep debt” makes jet lag worse).
- Minimize alcohol.
- Adjust meals and bedtime to the new time zone ASAP.
- Due to the gastrointestinal impact of jet lag, it can be helpful to drink lots of water and eat small, frequent, healthy meals when travelling.
We hear a lot about proper sleep hygiene. What are some things that we can add to our regular routines to improve on our sleep hygiene?
- Having a consistent, fixed wake-up time (even on weekends!) is one of the most important factors in building a consistent sleep pattern. Expose yourself to outside light (e.g., open blinds) upon waking.
- If you are having sleep problems, do not nap! Naps interfere with the restorative value of sleep later on that night. The best strategy is to get into bed earlier that evening.
- Do not have caffeine after 12pm – 1pm (the half life of caffeine is 5 hours – which means that 5 hours after having caffeine, 50% of the caffeine is still left in your body; it takes another 5 hours to have the caffeine be reduced in half, to 25%).
- Do not smoke or exercise 2-3 hours before bedtime.
- Even one drink of alcohol interferes with sleep quality and makes sleep less restorative.
- Create a bedtime routine that is relaxing; have decaffeinated tea, warm milk, or a warm bath. Make a clear distinction between daytime (alert) activities and bedtime (relaxing) activities.
- Make your bedroom environment comfortable and conducive to sleep (e.g., get comfortable pillow and bedding; keep room temperature moderate; darken the room).
- Restrict your bed for 2 activities – sleep and sex. Do not watch TV, eat, talk on the phone, argue, or use your computer while in bed.
- If you can’t fall asleep within 15-20 minutes, get out of bed and do not get back into bed until you are sleepy (not just tired).
Are you working on any projects or researching anything that you’d like to share with us?
I’ve recently assumed a position with the University of Fredericton and am creating the programming for their new Centre for Psychological Health Sciences. We just recently launched the first-ever Certificate in Psychological Health and Safety, and will soon be launching a Manager’s Certificate.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I am proud to have been selected to host two seasons of a show called Million Dollar Neighbourhood on the Oprah Winfrey Network. Oprah is one of the strongest, most influential women in North America and has done a tremendous amount to openly discuss issues such as domestic violence, sexual abuse and associated mental health issues. I’m very proud to have done work under her brand.
What is your favourite past time?
I love weight training! I entered my first amateur bodybuilding contest in 2014 and am proud to have qualified for the provincial championships. It’s a great stress reliever! I also am a devoted aunt to my 4-year old twin niece and nephew, Aidan and Eva, babysitting them several times a week.
What is your greatest extravagance?
I indulge in a pedicure and manicure every month. I also admit I love shopping – shoes and clothes!
If you could meet anyone in the world dead or alive who would it be and what would say to them?
Eleven years ago, my father passed away unexpectedly in his early 50s. I never had a chance to let him know how much he meant to me, or to say goodbye.
What is your motto?
“Smile, breathe and go slowly” is my favorite quote, from Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. I love it so much I have it tattooed on my right hip (along with a large Buddha sitting in a lotus flower).
What is your most prized possession/if you were stranded on a desert and could bring one thing, what would it be?
Aidan and Eva. (I know that’s two!)