Fortune Well May 22, 2023
You’re stressed about an upcoming presentation, overstimulated after a long day, or distracted by the sirens screaming in the street below your apartment. Your body and brain resist drifting off to sleep, and you can’t hit the hay no matter how many sheep you count.
When the sun peaks through the corner of your curtains, you label the day as a big ole “L,” and accept defeat.
But does a poor night’s sleep need to ruin your entire day?
“Sleep is intensely psychological, and unfortunately, when we have control over many areas of our lives and seek perfection in those areas, we can be disappointed in ourselves or become frustrated after a poor night’s sleep,” says Rebecca Robbins, PhD, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and associate scientist at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Still, sleep deprivation can have very real consequences for high performers—negatively affecting decision-making, productivity, and the immune system, says Shelby Harris, PhD, a behavioral sleep medicine physician in New York and the director of sleep health with Sleepopolis. And a poor night’s sleep here and there can make you emotionally reactive and put you at risk for rash decision-making, Robbins says.
But a bad night’s rest is not the end of the world. There are ways to make the most of a drowsy start to the day. Here’s how.
Your circadian rhythm, part of the body’s natural clock, responds to light. Waking up with light, whether the sun’s natural rays or a lamp, will help you feel more alert.
“You can go for walks in the morning, use a sunrise alarm clock that mimics the natural sunrise, or open your curtains [or] blinds to let the light in,” says Harris.
Stick to your early morning routine despite the setback. Consistent bedtimes and wake-ups make it easier to fall asleep.
“The best thing, while you might want to reach for coffee, will be to get outside into the natural sunlight, ideally go for a walk or jog, and get plenty of fresh air and sunlight into your eyes,” Robbins says.
While working out after a bad night’s sleep seems criminal to ask of someone, moving your body—even just a little bit—can wake up your system and help you stay alert.
Exercise quality may be impacted with sleep deprivation, but research suggests a morning workout is beneficial after a bad night’s sleep.
“Even a short walk or stretching session can help to get your blood flowing and wake up your body,” says Harris, adding it can also improve overall mood.
Having a breakfast filled with protein and fiber can help you stay energized throughout the day after a poor night’s sleep. Think: a bowl of yogurt with granola and fruit, or eggs with whole-grain toast. These fiber-rich foods will take longer to digest and help you feel full as you start the day.
And more? Avoid ultra-processed foods especially right before bed because they can disrupt digestion and make it harder to fall asleep.
Your regular morning cup of coffee is okay, but beware of drinking too much throughout the day because it can affect your ability to fall asleep the next night, experts say. And while alcohol may help you fall asleep, it does not help you stay asleep.
Taking breaks during a busy workday can help you stay focused on the tasks you need to get done to sign off. Consider alternating 20 to 30 minutes’ focus time with a five-to-10-minute walk around your block or office. Even a 20-minute nap, a five-minute meditation, or a breathing exercise can revitalize you.
Everyone has a groggy day from time to time, so don’t be afraid to ask for help from friends or colleagues for overly taxing tasks, says Dr. Abhinav Singh, medical review expert at SleepFoundation.org and medical director of the Indiana Sleep Center.
If possible, push off any tasks requiring major decision-making and stick to the basics, he adds.
It’s easy to blame yourself for your poor night’s sleep—wondering why you couldn’t rid your intrusive thoughts away or drift off after a long day (you were tired, after all!). But ruminating can keep us awake and alert as our brains search for answers in the middle of the night.
Patients tell Wendy Troxel, PhD, a sleep specialist at the Rand Corporation, they often feel their brain won’t shut off when they want to sleep, she previously told Fortune.
Putting pressure on yourself to fall asleep instantly and turn off your brain is often unrealistic, and being anxious about being tired only exacerbates the problem and can make it harder to get a good night’s rest the following day.
“Every night of sleep does not have to be perfect. It’s completely normal to have a bad night of sleep here and there,” Harris says.
Give yourself grace. Not every night is going to look the same, but there are ways to control what you can.
Establish a wind-down routine for 30 minutes to an hour before you plan to sleep. Rid yourself of screens and distracting notifications, take a warm shower, drink a cup of tea, or read a few pages of your favorite book. Consider allocating specific time to worry, and write down what is taking up space in your head.
“When time is up, literally and figuratively close the book on worry and practice this nightly for several weeks,” Troxel previously said. “Over time, this exercise has been shown to reduce the habit of ruminating in bed and interfering with sleep.”
One poor night’s sleep doesn’t dictate what will happen thereafter. But if you have consistently poor sleep for three days a week for three months, it may signify a sleep disorder and you should talk to your doctor.
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