I’m interrupting my regularly scheduled series on striving without burnout or rebellion to focus on some advice that is very timely for me today: how to survive a sleepless night.
Thankfully, I don’t suffer from chronic insomnia. My sleeplessness is acute. I may have trouble sleeping every few months for one or two nights at a time. But that limited bit of sleeplessness tests my coping skills. Studies show that dealing with a sleep deficit slows reaction time in the same way as if a person has been drinking alcohol. I am especially aware of this as I have a long commute, almost an hour one-way on high-speed Interstate highways. Occasionally vertigo also accompanies my sleeplessness. Because of slowed reaction time and my experiences with vertigo, I try to work from home on days that I have a sleepless night, if possible.
No matter if I’m working from home or if I’m trudging to work, I’ve found some tips that help me cope with a sleepless night.
Get up. I have a threshold for staying in bed trying to fall asleep. Once the clock hits around 4:00 AM, I know I’ve tried my best and I might as well dig into the long day ahead. Since I’m sleep-deprived everything will take longer anyway, so I might as well get going.
Take care of my physical comfort. It feels like I have a hard time regulating my body temperature when I didn’t get a good night’s sleep. I feel hot and cold all at the same time. The last thing I want to do when I’m overtired is put on something itchy or restrictive. I try to go with layers of comfortable clothes.
Don’t indulge in a tired look. While I try to be comfortable in my dress, I also try to go with something that is a complete outfit and one that I’ve been complimented on in the past, if possible. I have a few comfortable options that fit the bill. I try to do my makeup and hair as normally as possible, too. I don’t need to broadcast how exhausted I am and catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror looking like a schlub only reinforces tired feelings.
Don’t overcaffeinated. In our Starbucks society, we often think that caffeine is a remedy for lack of sleep. We can just pump ourselves up with a Venti Latte and stay up a couple extra hours to knock out a project. This isn’t the case and too much caffeine + lack of sleep is an especially bad combo for me. My tolerance for caffeine is low. I can have a cup of coffee in the morning and maybe a caffeinated beverage before or with lunch, but any more than that and I get jittery: my heart pounds, my hands shake, and my head feels fuzzy. If I’m dealing with a sleepless night, I may already be experiencing these symptoms. No need to double down on them with a double shot of espresso.
Make a to-do list / plan my day. On any regular day, I like to make a plan. My planner is an hour-by-hour planner and I pencil in appointments and meetings and then fill in the rest of the day with projects and tasks. This is especially important on days when I haven’t gotten to sleep. Unless I have a plan, it is easy to get stuck staring blankly into space trying to figure out what do next. I focus some time right at the beginning of the day to plug in the holes on my calendar so you don’t have to tap into executive functions of my brain when I get the most tired.
Knock those pesky chores off my list. Throughout the day, accomplishing little tasks will help to keep me motivated. If I’m up early, I go ahead and unload the dishwasher or fold that basket of laundry. At work, I take the time to file that stack of invoices that is piling up. Doing the tasks I can accomplish that make a big visual difference but that require little abstract thinking give me a boost and help keep me motivated throughout the day.
Do something creative. Color, rearrange my office pictures, sketch, doodle. I take a break from whatever I’m are doing and use my brain differently. What I do doesn’t have to be good, but if I feel like I can’t possibly accomplish another thing on my to-do list, I give the part of my brain that has been working hard a break and do something else.
Move. Get outside and go for a walk. Stand up while I take a phone call. I don’t overtax myself; a five-mile jog or 100 burpees are probably a bad idea, but a little physical movement throughout the day will help get me through until bedtime.
Eat healthy and pack extra snacks. It took me awhile to realize it, but I get a pit in my stomach when I have a sleepless night that seems bottomless. I am so hungry all day. I’m not sure why I feel so hungry all day, but it probably has something to do with the relationship between sleep and leptin. To avoid snarfing down three-day-old donuts or taking an emergency detour to the drive-thru for extra large french fries, I try to add a boost to each meal that I pack for work and also to pack extra snacks. I may put an extra scoop of yogurt into my smoothie or include a heartier mid-morning snack of a peanut butter-banana sandwich. I may not eat everything I have, but if my monster appetite demands food, it’s better for me to have something healthy at the ready.
Strike my best Wonder Woman pose. Research shows that if you strike a power pose, it can affect how other people perceive you and how you perceive yourself. I try to remember this especially when I am extra tired. I remind myself to stand/sit up straight. I can get a small but instant boost of vitality anytime I roll my shoulders back and down, put my hands on my hips and strike a wide-legged stance.
Unitask. I run into a lot of articles that say humans cannot multitask. We are unable to do two things at once. While I try to take this into account, it is especially important for me to remember after a restless night when my mental reserves are already low. It is important for me to focus on one thing at a time rather than keeping an eye on incoming emails while writing a memo or trying to address envelopes while sitting through a meeting.
Put some music in my ears. While I’m fully aware that listening to music while doing other work is technically multitasking, selectively listening to music that will pump me up during discrete points throughout the day can be a good strategy for surviving the day after a sleepless night. Whether it’s Vivaldi or Stevie Wonder or Adele, the energizing strains of a familiar song can give me life.
Listen. It’s very easy to miss something if you’re tired. I try to listen actively all the time, but it is even more important to do when I’m tired. This is also why I try to avoid talking on the phone when I’m tired. I do a bad job paying attention on the phone because I need that combination of visual and auditory stimulus for something to really stick and to be able to interpret accurately. My best trick for paying attention while listening is to take lots of notes. Whether I’m sitting through a team meeting or a church sermon, I do a better job listening if I have a paper and pen in hand. I suspect this is why I’m the secretary/recorder of different organizations and committees. I’m doing the work anyway because I have to in order to pay attention.
Don’t talk about how tired I am. Nobody really cares how tired I am. Chances are, they are tired, too. It’s not a competition. I think when you talk about being tired, it just reminds people that they are also tired. If anyone asks what’s wrong the night after I didn’t get sleep, I just say, “I didn’t sleep well last night” and leave it at that. (I stick with the standard, “fine” or “pretty good” in response to a more generic “How are you” inquiry.)
Go to bed. Finally, after a sleepless night, I feel free to go to bed as soon as I can and I am tired. I try not to miss my first wave of nighttime tiredness to watch tv with my family or to empty the dishwasher. If I want to put myself to bed right after work and I have the opportunity to do so, I go for it. I know I’m not really going to wreck my sleep schedule in one night and I’ll be better equipped to get my bedtime back to normal after a night of rest.
If I can’t fall asleep that second night. If sleep isn’t coming that second night, I don’t mess around with any non-chemical techniques for falling asleep. I either take a Benadryl or have an alcoholic drink. I don’t do this often, but on rare occasions that I’m so nervous about suffering a second consecutive night of sleeplessness, I’ve found it is easier for me to take my brain out of the equation with booze of Benadryl. I know that alcohol actually disrupts sleep, so I stick to just one drink. For me, if I’m stuck in a worry-cycle, getting bad sleep actually lets me get over my anxiety about not sleeping and helps me reset for subsequent nights. I’ve also found that, besides Benadryl, over-the-counter sleep aids just make me uncomfortably dizzy and paranoid, which increases my anxiety and decreases my ability to fall asleep.
Luckily my sleeplessness is episodic and manageable. If you’re reading this and feel that your sleeplessness is unmanageable or is negatively affecting your life for more than just a day or two at a time, you should see a doctor.