6 Subtle Signs You Have High Functioning Sleep Deprivation


Sleep deprivation is a common problem; many of us just aren't able to get enough ZZZs, and have to deal with the consequences the next day. But sleep deprivation doesn't just look like endless yawning, tiny "microsleeps," and general fogginess. A high proportion of sleep-deprived people are still going through life relatively smoothly, and may not even realize they're not getting enough sleep. This is a phenomenon known as high-functioning sleep deprivation, and if you've been feeling generally 'off' and can't figure out why, it might be the reason.

Sleep deprivation in extremes can do a lot of damage to cognition, health, and behavior. Sleepy people can make poor decisions, show signs of severe emotional instability (we all get cranky when we need a nap), and have very slow reaction times; the National Institute of Health notes that people who have chronic sleep deprivation can react just as poorly when driving as people who are intoxicated.

However, longer-term, minor levels of sleep deprivation can leave you feeling relatively "normal" and able to fulfill most of your obligations — which makes it harder to pinpoint what's actually going on. Signs of high-functioning sleep deprivation are often subtle, but if they start to crop up, it's likely a signal you need to adjust your sleep schedule. Here are a few things to be on the lookout for.


You Have A General Feeling Of Being "Unwell"

High functioning sleep deprivation won't show itself as the inability to stay awake. Instead, as neurologist Brandon Peters wrote for VeryWell Health, it can make your body feel generally beaten-down. "You may have a feeling of malaise, which might manifest as feeling run-down or simply "not well," he wrote. "You might have aches or pains in your body." It can also cause gastrointestinal upsets and chronic pain, as the body's natural defenses are lowered by exhaustion. If you just can't seem to feel fighting fit, sleep deprivation may be at the root of it.


You Make Small Mistakes Continuously

A study in 2018 found that when it comes to work, high-functioning sleep deprivation shows itself in mistakes — particularly when you're doing longer-term tasks that require you to follow instructions and different steps. Sleep deprivation seems to interfere with your memory, according to the study, which normally allows you to keep all the factors in a multi-stage task in your head. And that can lead to minor errors.

"Operating with reduced cognitive capacity has wide-ranging effects. Students may pull all-nighters and not retain information for their exams," lead author Dr. Kimberley Fenn said in a press release. "More worrisome, individuals working critical jobs may put themselves and other members of society at risk because of sleep deprivation. It simply cannot be overlooked."


Your Face Stops Showing Your Emotions

If you have high-functioning sleep deprivation, you may find that people start complaining they can't "read you" and "don't know what you're thinking these days". The problem is that facial expression can be affected by lack of sleep. "When people get sleep-deprived, they don't show positive emotion in their faces. A sleep-deprived person may say they're happy, but they still have a neutral face," Professor David Dinges told LiveScience. This will also impair your ability to judge the emotions of others based on their facial expressions. For high-functioning sleep deprived people, the world seems like a slightly more confusing place.


You Keep Getting Sick

A 2017 study published in the journal Sleep found that if you have a habit of sleeping less than you should, your immune system tends to suffer long-term — which means catching every bug that goes around the office, no matter how many healthy habits you have. The study discovered that the "effects of habitual short sleep on dysregulated immune response" aren't great, and that there might be a "potential link" between long-term sleep deprivation and general immune system issues. If your system isn't strong enough to fight off invaders, you'll discover you get sick very easily.


You May Feel More Socially Awkward

In 2018, scientists discovered that there's a social component to sleep deprivation. It seems that high-functioning sleep deprivation can make us feel more alone and isolated, and also drive people to avoid us. "The less sleep you get, the less you want to socially interact. In turn, other people perceive you as more socially repulsive, further increasing the grave social-isolation impact of sleep loss," said lead author Dr. Matthew Walker in a press release. "That vicious cycle may be a significant contributing factor to the public health crisis that is loneliness." If you've been feeling more lonely lately and others seem less keen to hang out with you, your sleep deprivation — and their sensing of it, even if it's not conscious — might be to blame.


You Find It Hard To Recall Simple Stuff

What happened at that meeting yesterday? Where are the socks you laid out to be worn today? If you're discovering that your memory of events seems to be oddly fragile, it may be due to sleep deprivation — and specifically a lack of a process called "scaling down". A 2017 study found that mouse brains "scale down" their activity during sleep to help solidify memories; in mice where that process was interrupted or stopped, recent memories became confused and difficult to distinguish.

The mice retained information from the day before, but couldn't quite place it or react to it correctly. If this happens in humans as well, it's likely that high-functioning sleep deprived people have good long-term memories, but can't seem to locate their keys or get their meeting schedules straight. "Sleep is not really downtime for the brain," explained scientist Dr. Graham Diering in a press release. "It has important work to do then, and we in the developed world are shortchanging ourselves by skimping on it."


If you think you can "survive" on five hours of sleep a night because you're not falling asleep on the bus every morning, but make repeated small mistakes and feel an increased sense of social confusion and isolation, sleep deprivation might be catching up to you. It's one thing if you're staying up late looking at pictures of dogs on Instagram, but if you're sleep deprived because you simply can't fall asleep or stay asleep, talk with your doctor about ways to improve your sleep routine. You may find these issues get resolved quickly soon after.