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How I Deal With a Bad Night of Sleep

I’m grateful that my insomnia responded to cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI). I no longer battle sleepless weeks or months. But like every human, I still have sleepless nights now and then, especially if I’ve got something on my mind or I’ve drunk too much caffeine (it’s pumpkin spice latte season!). 

I know I have to accept those nights as a part of life and avoid unhealthy ways of coping with them. Over the years, I’ve figured out what works for me.

My toolbox for a bad night

I get out of bed

If I’m worrying about something, I get out of bed. I know from training and experience that my bed will become associated with worry and wakefulness if I spend too much time there awake (the clinical term for that is “conditioned arousal"). So if I can’t shut my brain off within a few minutes, I get out of bed and move to the couch. I don't get back in bed unless I'm feeling sleepy.

I watch mindless TV

Watch mindless TV. It has to be something that I won’t get emotionally involved in. Even better if I’ve already seen the episode and know how it ends. A rerun of the original Beverly Hills, 90210 is pure gold for this reason. Episodes of The Goldbergs or Frasier are good, too. I'm usually having a hard time keeping my eyes open by the first commercial break.

I read a light-hearted, but interesting book

If it’s a boring read, it won’t hold my attention, and I'll start thinking about what needs to be done tomorrow or what I should have done differently today. If it’s too engaging, my desire to find out what happens will keep me awake. Ideally, the book will have short chapters, too, so I have natural stopping points when I can turn in once I feel sleepy.

I follow a guided relaxation script

The mindfulness app that I use has a few sessions specific to sleep, and they work great; I’m usually asleep before I get halfway through the session. For that reason, this is the only thing other than sleep that I allow myself to do in bed.

I don’t allow myself to nap the next day

No matter how little sleep I got the night before, I try my best to stay awake the next day so that I’m exceptionally tired when bedtime rolls around. That sometimes means I have to walk around while I'm watching TV after dinner so that I don’t doze off on the couch. I want to make sure my sleep drive is as high as it can be when it’s time for bed. My only exception is if I have to do something physically or cognitively demanding that day, like write a paper or drive long distances. In that case, I’ll allow myself a short (30-minute) nap before the task, but definitely not close to bedtime. That quick nap is typically enough to keep me cognitively alert for a couple of hours without zapping my sleep drive.

I keep perspective

I remind myself that it’s normal to have a bad night every once in a while. Being mindful about what I’m telling myself makes a big difference in my mood. If I recognize that my sleeplessness is due to that after-dinner coffee or a specific stressor, I don’t have much of an emotional reaction. But if I start thinking, “Oh no, what if this is the start of a bout of insomnia?!” then I’m likely to get anxious and have even more trouble falling asleep.

Preventing a recurrence of insomnia

I’ve been able to prevent a recurrence of insomnia by continuing to practice the skills I learned in CBTI (particularly stimulus control and sleep restriction) and managing the occasional bad night’s sleep with the tools above. 

What things work for you? Please share them in the comments below.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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