A quick guide to safely navigate cognitive and emotional deficits after the occasional night of sleeplessness. In a few words, take it easy.

woman laying face down on table
Photo by Pim Chu on Unsplash

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.