Feeling Tired? Here’s How to Get Through The Day Without Hurting Yourself (Or Anyone Else), The Research Life.
A quick guide to safely navigate cognitive and emotional deficits after the occasional night of sleeplessness. In a few words, take it easy.
It can feel difficult to sleep these days. I study sleep for a living, and even I don’t sleep well sometimes. I know the research-based recommendations for maintaining sleep health. There are many sleep habits that are well-known to help us achieve restful sleep. While I practice and encourage behavioral and environmental adjustments to improve sleep, there are times when these recommendations just don’t work. We sometimes experience physical, mental, and emotional stressors that interfere with our ability to sleep well. For these reasons, managing sleeplessness is something that we sometimes have to navigate, which can be a dangerous endeavor. Below, I will summarize some factors that affect our sleep health and how to safely cope with an occasional (i.e., non-recurrent) bout of sleeplessness.
What can get in the way of healthy sleep?
The ability to sleep well is fragile. There are many factors that impact sleep, including environmental disruptions, psychological distress, social issues, and health problems.
- Where we sleep matters. Sleep environments that are noisy, bright, or uncomfortable are linked with poor quality sleep and low sleep duration (detailed here).
- Our mental and emotional state also affect our sleep. Psychological distress and social injustice can interfere with getting to sleep and staying asleep. For example, untreated anxiety and depression and high stress levels have been associated with poor sleep. Stress can be induced through many mechanisms, including global unrest, financial and food insecurity, racism-related stress, and experiences of discrimination¹. One study has shown that racism-related vigilance, or preparing to experience racism, is linked with poor quality sleep².
- Physical discomfort might also disrupt sleep. Physical health problems and physical pain have been documented as contributors to poor sleep.
What’s best to do when we don’t sleep well?
Put simply, we should take it easy after a night of poor sleep. In an ideal world, people wouldn’t have to work after sleeping poorly. Because rescheduling the day is unreasonable for most people, I suggest taking an “active break,” or doing low effort tasks that are unlikely to result in serious injury or error after sleeping poorly. Below, I list some examples of coping strategies and low effort tasks.
- Get some sunlight to help yourself wake up and feel more alert. You might want to sit near a window during the day or spend some time outdoors. Exposure to bright light during the day helps us to feel more awake during waking hours and sleep better at night. This study showed that people who were exposed to bright light during the morning experienced low depression symptoms and high quality sleep. Even when I do sleep well, I like to set up my workstation near my window.
- Plan focused work sessions for later after you’ve recovered and feel rested. In most cases, some daily tasks can be rescheduled for another time. Planning tasks for later can help with internalizing that we don’t have to do everything immediately. It is much more efficient to work when we have slept as compared to when we feel tired.
- Respond to (unimportant) emails. It may be a good time to respond to emails that require low effort and little thought. For example, it’s simple to respond to an email about an office number or student ID, but it’s difficult to respond to emails that require more thoughtful responses, like a manuscript idea or a progress report on a final project.
- Read mass emails. These are the emails that are sent to everyone. There might be an interesting workshop, course, or some other opportunity that you may find useful and can plan to do later.
What’s best to avoid after a night of poor sleep?
When we don’t sleep well, we are impaired at nearly every level. We experience deficits in motor, cognitive, and emotional processing, to name a few. Because of this, we should be careful when we sleep poorly. Here are some things that I suggest avoiding in order to maintain safety and efficiency after a night of sleeplessness.
- Complex motor tasks such as driving, biking, running, or involved exercise. Because motor movements may be more imprecise and attention is impaired after sleep deprivation³, you may want to avoid stairs and other difficult terrain. I can tell you from personal experience that the times that I have twisted my ankle during trail runs have been primarily after nights of poor sleep. I have learned the hard way that it’s best to avoid the hard training sessions, long bike rides, and other complex motor tasks the day after poor sleep.
Consider doing this instead: Go for an easy walk (ideally on level surfaces). If you must travel far, consider taking public transportation or ask a well-rested friend or colleague to drive you there.
- Engaging in arguments or important conversations. Emotional processing is impaired when we haven’t slept well. These impairments stem from sleep-related changes at the neural level, including greater activity in a brain structure that processes fear, the amygdala (for a brief discussion on this, see this article). When sleep deprived, we may respond reactively instead of rationally, remember more negative details than positive ones, and lack empathy and understanding for others⁴.
Consider doing this instead: Revisit the conversation another day after you have rested. In other words, sleep on it.
- Making important decisions. We need rest to think clearly and respond appropriately. Critical decisions on little to no sleep can result in fatal error (for a detailed discussion on this, see this previous article).
Consider doing this instead: If you work at a job that involves dealing with the lives of others (e.g., medicine, law enforcement), call out of work. If it’s an important personal life decision, such as a major purchase or career decision, do the same as mentioned above. Delay the decision until you’ve gotten enough rest. Again, sleep on it.
- Studying critical information. It is difficult to learn and remember new information after a night of poor sleep. It’s best to wait until after you’ve recovered to get more out of the study session (see this previous article for a detailed explanation of the cognitive and neural mechanisms of poor sleep and inefficient studying).
Consider doing this instead: Prep for your study session. Block out time to study later. Do something that is less dependent on memory or less likely that you need to remember outright. Use the workday as a period of active rest, and plan to have a focused study session when you are feeling better rested.
What if you don’t feel like sleep deprivation affects you?
While there is some evidence that the degree of neurobehavioral impairment from sleep deprivation does vary from person to person⁵, sleep deprivation has a negative effect on performance for most people. For example, even fighter pilots who are expected to show high resilience to stress demonstrate deficits in some performance measures after experiencing total sleep deprivation.
Importantly, research demonstrates that we cannot reliably predict how well we can compensate for poor sleep⁶.Associations between people’s predictions of their performance on tasks after a night of sleep deprivation are misaligned with their actual performance. Although we may feel as if we can adjust to sleeplessness and compensate for poor sleep, it is unlikely that we can perform all daily tasks as well when sleep deprived as compared to when well-rested.
The bottom line: Take it easy after nights of little to no sleep
The most important idea that we should take from this is that we need to prioritize taking care of ourselves, especially when we don’t sleep well. It is an unrealistic goal to sleep well every night. What we have to do for ourselves, and for those around us, is to practice compassion. When feeling unwell and unrested, we should embrace the idea of simply taking a break and allowing ourselves to recover.
The ideas presented here are my own and do not substitute individualized medical advice. If you are having consistent trouble with your sleep, I recommend seeking help from a trusted medical profession.
1 For more research-based evidence on how these factors affect sleep, see this review on potential causes and consequences of sleep loss and this comprehensive review on discrimination-related sleep disturbance.
2 Discrimination and racism are persistent issues. There is some research suggesting that high quality sleep may protect people against the negative effects of these problems. See this study on sleep and resilience to discrimination in adolescents.
3 Refer to this notable review, “Neurocognitive consequences of sleep deprivation” for a comprehensive discussion on cognitive and motor deficits related to total and partial sleep deprivation.
4 See this review on “Sleep Loss and the Socio-Emotional Brain” for a detailed discussion on the emotional deficits that stem from little to no sleep.
5 For a detailed discussion on variability in performance after sleep deprivation, see this review on “Interindividual variability in neurobehavioral response to sleep loss: A comprehensive review.”
6 The misalignment between self-ratings of sleepiness and behavioral performance is demonstrated in this study. The researchers note that, “The mean subjective measures of sleepiness were also calculated for each group, but they did not reflect the level of drowsiness as measured by behavioral and physiological indices, suggesting that the participants’ perception of their own level of fatigue did not correspond to the objective measure.” In other words, self-ratings of sleepiness do not directly correspond to objective, physiological measures of sleepiness nor behavioral performance.
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