How To Get Through The Day If You Haven't Slept

According to a study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, women are much more likely than men to experience problems falling asleep. And whether you’re an eternal insomniac or suffer the odd bout of red-eye panic, you’ll know that the day after a sleepless night can be just as bad as the night itself – if not worse.

I’m not a Grade A, DEFCON 1 insomniac but I do enjoy regular, fortnight-long hazes of two hours' sleep a night, culminating in no hours a night and a daylight-hours breakdown. Just last week I yelled at two friends then snot-cried in a chair outside Paperchase, convinced I had "a dark soul" after two consecutive nights of no sleep. I have been given the nickname Sauron by my writing partners because, when sleep-deprived, I resemble the angry orange eye in Lord Of The Rings that feeds on evil and pain.

It’s these Sauron-based moments that led me to speak to a number of sleep therapists about ways to get through the day when you’re an insomniac – because nobody really talks about that part. I sometimes tell people I’m sick, because saying I haven’t slept just doesn’t feel like a legitimate excuse (Oh, you’re tired? We’re all fucking tired, snowflake).

But is it a good idea to remove yourself from polite society once you’ve turned into a fictional orange eye on a mountain? Should you drink coffee when you haven’t slept at all? Is sugar a bad idea? Are naps a worse idea? Help me, please, oh my god. These are some of the questions I posed to Dr. Guy Meadows of The Sleep School (they run some cool online insomnia courses) and Dr. Neil Stanley, an independent sleep therapist, as well as a number of helpful insomniac friends, to create an exhaustive list of what to do when you haven’t slept.

Firstly, accept the symptoms


Dr. Meadows pioneers a new form of insomnia treatment based on CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), but with a fundamental difference: rather than getting rid of the symptoms (headaches, nausea, emotional insanity), he advocates full acceptance.

“When we have these symptoms, we want to get rid of them, but the more you try to get rid of them, the more frustrated and upset you can get,” explains Dr. Meadows. “CBT teaches us to block those emotional thoughts, to try and get rid of them. But have you ever tried to block anxious thoughts? They end up getting even bigger and turning up with their mates. An alternative response is to look at it mindfully. Say to yourself, ‘I feel bad, but I’m going to notice things around me. I’m going to feel the bag in my hand, the wind on my face. I’m going to notice the people around me’. It sounds almost too simple, but it’s about a lack of judgement and a lack of negativity.”

The idea is that sleep is a biological process we can’t control, and the more we try to force control of it, the more resentful we become. “If you try to remain as neutral as possible during the day, then you’ll find you’re more capable to deal with everything the day – and the symptoms of insomnia – throw at you”, adds Dr. Meadows.

Go outside, and move


Put simply, lots of daylight signals to your brain that you’re awake. While the thought of being under bright sunlight after a night of no sleep can feel like hell, it’s important you bite the bullet and go outside.

“You need to start the day in the most positive way possible,” explains Dr. Neil Stanley. “Bright daylight, fresh air, hit the shower, have cup of coffee. You won’t feel like hitting the treadmill, but walking to the bus stop, or walking part-way to work is going to help you a lot.”

A load of my insomniac pals had the same response. “Open your window, and go for occasional brisk walks,” says Robyn, who often works from home so can feasibly stay in a dark room all day. She adds: “Stand up while doing tasks!” which is echoed by a lot of other insomniacs, who said things like, “Moving, lots of moving” and “FOR GOD’S SAKE DON’T STAY IN YOUR DARK ROOM.” Helpful.

Yes, have a coffee


You may have noticed Dr. Stanley dropping the C bomb back there. Caffeine is an oft-debated and oft-reviled topic among insomniacs – but both sleep experts I spoke to agreed that it shouldn’t be seen as the devil.

“I spend most of my time trying to convince clients they can drink coffee,” says Guy. “A lot of traditional methods for tackling insomnia are so rule-based, when actually you just have to be kind to yourself. Have a coffee! Just don’t have 10 cups, and try not to drink it beyond 2 or 3pm.”

Dr. Stanley agrees: “The benefits of coffee are definitely short-term, but a coffee at the start of the day is going to help you through. Just don’t have too many cups, and remember that you’re going to get a caffeine crash after the initial high.”

According to some top-notch science, the best time to drink your morning coffee is around 10.30am, which coincides with your body’s natural dip in cortisol production. Cortisol is a hormone that, among other functions, helps to promote alertness – so if you drink coffee while your cortisol levels are high, you won’t feel the benefit. Problem is, since you haven’t slept, your cortisol levels are probably all over the place, meaning all this top-notch science goes out the window.

The best thing to do, then, is to drink coffee only when absolutely necessary (i.e. you’re falling asleep standing up) rather than as a preventative (i.e. you’re running off adrenaline but are concerned you might start falling asleep standing up), as the moment you feel totally dead on your feet is the moment your cortisol levels are probably pretty low. Clever, right?

Nap


“I had a client who couldn’t sleep, and it turned out she was napping for up to six hours a day. I was like, ‘Aha! We’ve found the problem!’” says Dr. Meadows. “There are a lot of rules out there which I’m against – one is ‘Don’t nap cos it’ll ruin your night’s sleep’. It lacks compassion. Allow yourself a nap but keep it to a maximum of 30 minutes and always before 3pm. You are reducing pain and discomfort, and having that nap can quell rising anxiety levels. But just make sure you’re not sleeping for much longer than 30 minutes, as that will reduce your sleep drive.”

He adds that a lot of insomniacs can’t nap, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. See it not as an opportunity to sleep, but as an opportunity to lie down and be relaxed for 30 minutes. On that note, I’ve found this advice useful for when I’m about to go to bed; if you don’t put pressure on yourself to sleep, and instead think of it as a great excuse to lie in a cosy bed for ages, that can sometimes flick a switch in your brain, allowing you to grab a few hours' kip.

But back to napping. Dr. Stanley agrees on the benefits of a quick snooze but recommends a slightly shorter nap time: “One or two 20-minute naps is optimum, as it’ll lessen your symptoms. But if you’re needing to nap a lot more, then you’ll end up making your insomnia worse.”

I guess try both of these out, and see what works for you?

Prioritise your workload


You’re going to be going through some fascinating peaks and troughs today, so don’t leave all your important tasks, requiring serious concentration, until 4pm when you’re going to be falling asleep at your desk (other top tip: grab a 10-minute sitting-up nap on the loo).

“Get all your important tasks done first,” says Dr. Stanley. “Your levels of focus will bottom out towards the end of the day, so it’s not a good idea to leave the big stuff 'til later. Also, be aware that you’re going to have a pretty big post-lunch dip between 2 and 4pm, so take precautions.”

Precautions being a massive coffee (but not after 3pm) and, perhaps, a shitload of water. Which leads me to…

Watch what you’re eating


Of course sugar and fat are the two things you’re going to be wanting when you’re miserable, tired and feeling like a pod-person. While snacking on sugary stuff genuinely helps pep you up through the day (a lot of insomniacs I spoke to swore by Fruit Pastilles), there’s fairly solid research that says people who haven’t slept will often eat an extra thousand calories.

“There aren’t really any foods that help with fatigue,” says Dr. Stanley, “but we crave sugary, fatty foods, which is a bit of a problem. Essentially, you should eat no differently because you’re sleepy as you would do on any other day. Try to resist the temptation, don’t go for that Mars Bar, because it’s only going to worsen your situation.”

Fellow insomniacs had some food-based tips for avoiding a double fry-up: “If you must have sugar, try and have some protein, too, as that really helps. Nuts are good for snacking,” says Beth. Another insomniac added: “I try to drink Emergen-C, which you can get from Holland and Barrett; while it’s probably a placebo, it seems to help if I’m really drowsy.”

Don’t isolate yourself


So it turns out that my favourite technique actually doesn’t help at all. Similar to “get through the day”, you shouldn’t withdraw from polite society because it’ll just end up making you way more miserable and inward-facing.

Rather than sitting in a dark cloud of mist, brooding on how shit your life is, force yourself to be nice to other humans who have quite possibly enjoyed a nice sleep.

“Interaction with other people, whether it be work colleagues or friends, is very important when you’re struggling through the day on little sleep,” says Dr. Stanley. “Don’t just sit staring at your computer all day in silence – that isn’t going to help. It’ll just make the day a lot less pleasant.”

Insomniac Ben agrees: “Laughing helps. With colleagues, at colleagues, at stuff on your computer, at members of the public and, if the situation gets particularly desperate, at nothing at all. Hysteria is always an option.”

While – if you’re anything like me – you may be concerned about accidentally being a giant prick, if you’ve employed the rest of the tips in this article, your perspective should be a little brighter. Meaning you’re less likely to snap. Or you can do the ole 'fake it 'til you make it' thing, where you force yourself to pretend to be really happy, make yourself say something nice or engage a colleague in some gentle chat about X Factor (I always use this as a reference, having never actually watched it), despite the fact you want to jump out of a window, until you find the dark clouds lifting.

Or, at the very least, until you stop feeling fully Sauron. Which can only be a good thing.


Get through the day, no matter what


If you’re reading this at 6am with a big day at work ahead of you, feel free to yell “Well if I thought I could do that I wouldn’t be reading this article, dickhead” into the inky blackness. But you can actually get through the day. Both experts agreed on the importance of maintaining a positive perspective, and the self-belief that you are capable of way more than you think.

“Getting on with your life is the most important thing you can do when suffering with insomnia,” says Dr. Meadows. “Even with all the symptoms that are showing up. The reason for this is because, in the middle of the night, one of the things keeping us awake is the anxiety that we won’t be able to get through the day. But if you prove to yourself that you can in fact live your life, there’s less reason to struggle at night, and you can start to break the vicious cycle, and begin a whole new one. Everything about this is psychological, and a change of perspective is crucial.”

Mindfulness (see the first point, above) helps with this, but so does every other tip in this article. Gather them up and use them as weapons. Have a coffee, get outside, do everything you can in order to get through the day and you’ll find the period of insomnia doesn’t last quite as long as you thought it would. See it as a battle, a challenge that you’re going to overcome – like a really long run you thought you couldn’t finish, but did; or a massive cake you thought you couldn’t finish, but did.

“Splashing your face with cold water, putting on new clothes and putting on makeup all really help me”, says Clare, who has built up an insomnia arsenal of sorts. Gina adds: “Put together a killer playlist for the next day that’ll see you through. It’s the same sort of logic as listening to pumping music at the gym.”

You can do it, mate. I, and everyone at Refinery29, believe in you.
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