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Sleep Your Way to Resilience

Following on from our introduction of the Base - Progress - Thrive model in last week’s The Breakdown, we thought it timely to discuss the one absolute that underpins Resilience: Sleep. 

The science of sleep is an ever-changing and always enlightening subject area that - whilst now both popular and progressive - is forever offering up new understandings and approaches. These findings are well documented and, largely, freely available (we have provided some relevant resources down below).

Therefore, in this article, we won’t be delving too deeply into the specifics of things such as Sleep Cycles, Hygiene or Habits.

Instead, we will take a broad look at two specific things: How sleep directly relates to Resilience and some strategies that we (ie: The Resilience Lab team) have found to work for us.

Before we begin, however, there is one really important point that we’d like to get across: neglect the power of sleep at your peril! 

In the words of The Resilience Lab Co-Director, Joe Knight: “After so many years leading students in dynamic environments, I can unequivocally say that, without proper sleep, performance and functionality will never be optimal. We see it time-and-again in our Nervous System testing, in Dive Reflex Innervation and in every other performance aspect of our programs.”

How does Sleep Affect Resilience?

Under The Resilience Lab’s Training Model, Resilience is defined as “the ability to remain calm, functional and cognitively capable in the face of unexpected challenges”. 

If we take this definition and extrapolate it to, say, a busy parent who has been up all night with a sick child, it’s pretty easy to see the direct correlation between lack of quality sleep and performance. 

Anyone that has been in this situation can attest to the fact that - under these circumstances - there is little chance you can remain optimally calm, functional and cognitive.

Physiologically, sleep aids a myriad of processes, including everything from memory creation and nervous system control, to the regulation of appetite, metabolism and mood, as well as immune, hormonal and cardiovascular functioning. 

Sleep is also essential for healthy growth, learning and development in children, and for higher-level cognitive functioning and workplace performance in adults. 

With direct regard to Resilience, however, the equation can be broken down to something fairly simple: without adequate rest, your Nervous System loses its buffering capacity in the face of challenges.

Returning to our under-slept parent example, this will translate into an increased tendency to react to everything with a Sympathetic Mode bias (the fight or flight side of our nervous system). Small problems suddenly become insurmountable, usually enjoyable challenges become hardships, self-criticism permeates your thinking and stress compounds. 

The practical manifestation of this is evident: when your 5 year old kid can’t find their shoe, instead of providing loving and patient assistance, you fly off the handle, storm off in a huff and spill your coffee everywhere.

Another key concept of The Resilience Lab’s training system is the O.A.R Stategy - something that is directly inhibited by poor sleep.

“The O.A.R strategy allows people to observe a situation with objectivity and respond accordingly,” says Nathan Burns, The Resilience Lab’s Co-Director, “But if you are poorly rested this objectivity gets thrown out the window. Instead, what we see is people responding with more reflexive, subcortical primal thoughts and actions that aren’t necessarily suitable - or helpful - for the situation at hand”.

As a generally under-rested and over-stimulated society (in a 2016 study, it was estimated that nearly half (48%) of all Australian adults had at least 2 sleep-related problems*), and with the knowledge that poor rest is bio-accumulative (ie: continued lack of sleep compounds), it is easy to picture why so many of us feel (to borrow from a well-known psychology model), stuck in a ‘fixed mindset’ of self-criticism, resentment and disillusionment.

However, by unpacking this element and simply explaining how directly it affects our ability to function every day, we sincerely hope that - in conjunction with the Base - Progress - Thrive Model - you can begin to formulate a concrete set of ‘go-to’ actions that will help you maintain Resilience.

Strategies That Work For Us

Over the years, The Resilience Lab team have experienced pretty much every sleep challenge there is. Throughout our personal and professional lives we have struggled with the eternal fog of shift work, season-upon-season of guiding and restless tent sleeping, parenthood, straight-up insomnia, accumulated stress…and almost everything in between!

Honestly, it has taken us years to get a decent handle on the enigma of sleep - and we’re a long way from being masters of it! However, we do recognise its pricelessness and therefore want to share some practical, effective strategies that have worked for us.

Don’t Fight Your Biology: Get to know your chronotype.

Your chronotype is the natural inclination of your body to sleep at a certain time, or what most people understand as being an early bird versus a night owl. In addition to regulating sleep and wake times, chronotype has an influence on appetite, exercise, and core body temperature. It is responsible for the fact that you feel more alert at certain periods of the day and sleepier at others.

There is some emerging evidence to suggest that chronotype has a genetic component, whilst some researchers think that the variation in chronotype might have been a survival technique that evolved in hunter-gatherers (ie: it is better for the tribe if some are naturally awake to stand guard, whilst others sleep).

Regardless, understanding your natural tendencies to be asleep/awake will go a long way towards helping you build a schedule that suits you (night-owls that constantly have to get up early for work can attest to how difficult it can be when this is misaligned!).

The Morning-Eveningness Questionnaire (MEQ) is a science-based method for understanding your general chronotype.

We have created a FREE VERSION of the MEQ, which you can access HERE.

Light up the morning, dim down the night.

Daylight is the most reliable repeating signal we have in our environment, so it is no surprise that our bodies need regular, timed exposure to help set internal rhythms. The suprachiasmatic nucleus, is a structure that sits in the center of our brains, above the ‘crossover’ point of our two optic nerves. As light enters the brain (via your eyes and optic nerves), the suprachiasmatic nucleus samples this light and uses it to reset your 24-hr chronological clock and circadian cycles - including your desire to be asleep or awake.

When we view sunlight first thing in the morning (in conjunction with a walk to produce optic flow**), it kick-starts the accumulation of adenosine, a neurotransmitter that promotes (amongst many other things), sleep drive. As adenosine levels rise throughout the day, your body starts to naturally recognise the need for rest. 

As bedtime approaches, the other powerful hormone that needs activation is melatonin. Think of melatonin as the ‘referee’s whistle’ that starts the game of sleep, however it is kept at bay by light signals during the day. As evening approaches and light dims (as it naturally does in nature), melatonin is set free, instigating a decrease in body temperature, regulation of blood pressure, changes in metabolism and, ultimately, the promotion of sleep.

So, the key takeaways here are: try and get sunlight in your eyes first thing in the morning (plus movement is best!), and dim down the lights in your household as bedtime approaches.

Tune in to yourself.

Not everyone can have a perfect sleep, every single night of their lives. And there are certainly times in almost everyone’s life when sleep is disrupted, missed, or given a lower priority than normal. 

And that’s OK!

The key takeaway here is to train yourself to be aware and cognisant of the time when your Nervous System is dysregulated due to lack of sleep, and act accordingly. 

If you have had a rough night, waking up and struggling through an hour of High HR CO2 training is probably not the best thing to be doing! Just think of what you’re telling an already stressed out system: “OK guys!...It’s time to front up for some more challenges! Pony up and get crackin’!” ( can almost hear your cells groaning under the effort!).

Instead, a better way to deal with this is to recognise that this is an opportunity to do some work on the Parasympathetic side of your Nervous System- the rest and digest mode we sometimes struggle so hard to innervate. A gentle walk, with some light breathing exercises or calming yoga are perfect examples of activities that fit this mold.

“I remember when I first started doing shiftwork, I honestly thought I was becoming clinically depressed or even diabetic,” says Nathan Burns, “After night shifts I was grumpy, angry, self-loathing…it was horrible. Despite all the medical knowledge we were given on the path to becoming a Paramedic, no-one ever told us about managing sleep! It seems ridiculous, but it took me about 3-4 years to work out a system that worked for me, and to be softer and more accepting of my Nervous System state on those days”.


Podcast: Be More Alert When Awake by Andrew Huberman

Sleep Guide: Sleep Management by Romney Noonan

*Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Nov 2021; Sleep problems as a risk factor for chronic conditions.

** Optic flow is a phenomenon that occurs when we generate our own forward motion, such as when walking, biking or running. Visual images pass by our eyes, generating a flow of information that has a powerful effect on the nervous system. Optic flow has been shown to reduce the amount of neural activity in the amygdala, which is a brain structure that generates feelings of fear, threat and anxiety.

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