It's the middle of the night and you know you should be sleeping, but you can't. Something is keeping you up: Maybe a coworker tried to throw you under the bus, or your friend said something rude. Whatever it is, you can't get it out of your head, and you need to sleep for work tomorrow. It sucks.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.
I've had my share of those nights, and they're the worst. It doesn't even have to be something serious that's keeping you awake, either. Sometimes it's small; a snide comment or the assertion that you're not doing your job well. Other times it can be serious, like hearing through the grapevine that someone important said something off-colour about you. Combine this with even a little stress and anxiety, and your brain is off to the races at the worst of times — the middle of the night. I'm willing to bet you've been there too.
Get Up, Shake It Off
This kind of "in the moment" stress is called acute stress, and the last thing you want when you're dealing with it (or its cousin, stress-related anxiety,) is to dwell on it in a futile attempt to sort it out in your head. The more you follow your thoughts around in circles, the deeper that feedback loop of stress and anxiety goes. The end result is a dangerous cycle: You get more stressed, more tired, and the night continues to slip away from you. Knowing you have to get up soon stresses you out even more, which keeps you from sleeping...lather, rinse, repeat.
Of course, if getting back to sleep were as easy as "just put it out of your mind and relax," there wouldn't be a problem. Lying there isn't going to help, so when you find yourself stressing out, stop and get out of bed. Doing something else for a little while will help you shake it off.
This is more important than it sounds. The longer you stay in bed, the more you risk tossing and turning all night. When this happens, your body stops recognising your bed as a restful space. Let your bed air out and cool down, and give your body a chance to actually want to return to its blissfully blanketed comfort. Walk around a bit. Make a cup of tea or pour a glass of water. Do something refreshing that shakes the funk you were in while you were replaying the events of the day. It's no panacea, but it breaks the cycle, and that's a critical starting point.
Do Something Meditative, but Distracting
The next thing you need to do is get away from the clock. Do something meditative that isn't (necessarily) meditation. For some people, meditation is a great way to clear your mind and focus on something that isn't stressing you out. If that works for you, great: now's a good time to meditate. If not, now's not the time to try and learn.
Here's the problem. When you're in the moment and all of these anxious, angry thoughts are swirling around your head in the wee, quiet hours of the morning, the last place you probably want to be is in your own head. If you're a pro at meditating, you can overcome the silence of your environment, the creaks of your house settling, the sirens outside your apartment window, and your spinning thoughts — and actually relax. On the other hand, if you're up at 2am reading blog articles about stress and have never meditated before, you need something without the learning curve.
If you have some busywork around the house to do, now's a good time to do it. Light cleaning (if it won't wake the neighbours, kids, or your spouse, of course), organising, or even reading under a low light are all good candidates. Fire up your backlog of podcasts or audiobooks and let the dulcet tones of This American Life lull you to sleep. Try a podcast like Sleep With Me, which is specifically designed to help you relax and get some rest. You can even try meditative colouring, which can be great for relieving anxiety and stress in the moment. Try to choose something that's interesting and thoughtful, but not too stimulating.
Ultimately, your goal is to get your mind moving on to something else, not related to the thing that stressed you out. You may not be able to completely take your mind off of it, but hopefully you can chill out enough by doing something else that you're able to relax, your fight-or-flight response deactivates, and you're calm enough to go back to bed.
Try to Avoid Screen Time, If You Can
Try to avoid picking up your phone or sitting down at your computer. It's common advice for healthy sleep, but it's important here too. The light from your devices confuses your brain into thinking it's time to wake and stay awake, and the things you'll likely wind up looking at (email, social media, and so on) are stimulating enough that they will only serve to keep you up even longer. In general, it's a bad idea.
If you can, try to stick to an e-ink tablet like a Kindle or a Nook. They're designed specifically for reading, don't emit any light, and they don't confuse your brain the same way your phone or tablet will.
If you absolutely must pick up your phone or open your laptop no matter what we say, turn the brightness down, or install an app like f.lux (available for Windows, OS X, iOS, and Linux) or Twilight (for Android.) Both tweak your display's colour temperature to be easy on the eyes depending on the time of day.
None of these are perfect solutions, but we'll be realistic here. For many of us, the first thing we do when we can't sleep is reach for our phones and while away a few minutes reading Twitter, liking photos on Instagram, or watching funny YouTube videos to relax. It's ok — just make sure you give yourself the best possible chance at restful sleep once you've calmed back down.
Use Sleep Aids Cautiously
If you're having a really tough time sleeping, you can always turn to an over-the-counter sleep aid, but you should do so cautiously. Many come with their own array of risks and side effects, and what works for some people may not work for you. We'd suggest waiting until you've tried more traditional methods to see if you can de-stress on your own. This is especially important if you're tossing and turning at 3am and you need to be up by 8am. You don't want a sleep aid to push you into a deep slumber so you oversleep — or still be in your system when you're awake and going to work. You'll feel awful and lethargic for a good portion of the day.
If you have the time, taking over-the-counter sleep aids are fine once in a while. They will help you sleep, but they won't do much about your stress. They will, however, make you logey when you wake, so make sure you take them with plenty of time to get them out of your system before you have to be awake again. Check the label, it should tell you how long you'll probably need (it's usually about eight hours.) Make sure you read the ingredients thoroughly too, as many brand names have similar labels but different active ingredients. In every case though, use these options wisely and sparingly, and if your sleeplessness persists, talk to your doctor.
Whatever You Do, Don't Work
If you do pick up your phone or open your laptop, don't start working. Whatever you do, don't try to "be productive," or address whatever stressed you out in the first place. Don't reply to that irritating email, or fire a text to your friend asking about whatever you heard they said. Don't engage. Trying to "solve" the problem amps up your stress levels, which, of course, delays you getting back to sleep. Worse, it may put you even more on edge as you worry about how your message will be received, when it will be received, and what the inevitable response will look like.
Then you have to worry about what it looks like to your friends and colleagues that you were up at three in the morning firing off email or posting to Facebook. Some coworkers might think you're an overachiever. Your friends might think you're mental. I've been there: I've walked into the office the following morning to praise that I was up working in the middle of the night because I was stressed about a project that couldn't sleep. It sounds great, but being an overachiever comes with risks, and people eventually start to expect you to work around the clock. Your friends probably won't praise you for those late-night texts or emails trying to clear the air, but they'd likely appreciate a face-to-face talk, or at least texting when they have time to respond, instead of waking up to you being unhappy with them. Sleepless nights suck, but you can't solve everything at 3am. Doing so comes with real sacrifices in sanity, and even more sleepless nights.
If you absolutely have to, maybe write that email and schedule it for the morning, or save it to your drafts folder so you can review it later. Better yet, write down how you plan to talk to your friend in person. In most situations, if you feel like you don't have control, doing whatever's actually in your control is usually a good thing. In this case though, trying to fix it at 3am might make you feel in-control, but it comes at the cost of your sleep and sanity. Avoid it if at all possible and do something else — anything else.
If It Comes Down to It, Take a Day Off
Finally, if push comes to shove, fire up your work email and just let your boss know you won't be in the next morning. Play it off like you need a mental health day, or you're feeling sick overnight and can't get the sleep you need to function the next day. Set an alarm not to wake up for work, but to call in and tell your boss you can't make it today (or better yet, leave a message on their office phone before they get in!) Many a sleepless night I've found just emailing my boss at 3am and saying "hey, I'm having a rough night and I'll need to take tomorrow off/come in late for a half-day tomorrow, I'm not feeling well," is enough to settle my mind enough that I can go right off to sleep. The break the next morning is nice, too.
Of course, not all of us have the flexibility to just take the day off because we're suffering a little stress-related insomnia, but if you have the luxury of taking a little time off or a sick day, take it. Your sanity is worth it.