How to survive a day on no sleep

By far the most common email in my Billygean inbox is asking for advice (am unsure why, when my life is clearly a shambles), and a popular question is how do I cope on little sleep with a diagnosis of chronic fatigue. I sadly have the all-too-common combination of needing a more-than-average amount of sleep (depressing, when I always needed less-than-most, and always felt that was quite cool and enabled me to be very productive) and suffering from insomnia.

I am a Bad Sleeper. I have written about this before, extensively, and after following sleep hygiene advice my sleep is much better. I do, however, hardly ever sleep before midnight (something NOBODY understands, bearing in mind fatigue problems; least of all me) and a few times a year simply will not sleep at all. Unfortunately, my body also requires far more sleep than it used to in order to feel well. While gone are my student days before I got glandular fever and would routinely get four hours’ sleep, gone too are the days in the year or two after glandular fever where I needed ten hours’ sleep to even function. Now, I prefer to have nine or ten, am fine on seven or eight, but the way I live my life means I usually get five or six on work days and nine, ten, eleven, twelve or, today, thirteen hours on non-work days. Needing lots of sleep and insomnia are of course connected for me: my insomnia is psychological in nature, and knowing how shite I feel on little sleep ensures I won’t sleep.

I have this in my mind because the night before last I barely slept at all. I was definitely still awake at 4:00am and I would estimate that I slept from 4.30 – 7:00am when I got up and went to work. I don’t really remember how sleep deprivation was before I got glandular fever, but I recall staying up all night clubbing the night before I got my law school results, and I was the next day merely sleepy. Now, my body reacts quite violently to lack of sleep: I feel queasy, ill, my heart pounds all day like it sometimes does if you are woken from a nap unexpectedly, my eyes go dry and sting, but, most of all, I just feel like I am not really where I am, like I am underwater or in a bubble.

So feeling tiredness more keenly than others together with pretty regular insomnia, I thought I would write down what I do on days when I haven’t slept in order to feel okay:

  • Keep busy: just as insomnia is almost always psychological in nature, so too is sleep deprivation, at least in part. Better to do useless filing at home than to sit and think about how little sleep you have had. I felt best yesterday when engrossed in work and when walking through town.
  • Caffeine is very useful. I go for three coffees early in the morning and top it up with a constant stream of strong tea, but then I do have quite an unhealthy dependency on caffeine. Try no caffeine after 6:00pm though.
  • Eat A LOT: when I was suffering very badly with fatigue I was also very hungry. Food gives you energy, so eat a lot. It’s also a good distraction. Also drink a lot, so you don’t add to the problems with dehydration.
  • Don’t panic: when your body is constantly sending you messages that you need to go to sleep NOW it can be quite frightening. Yesterday I was talking to somebody in the office and the floor tilted, or seemed to. Nobody could tell but for a second I thought WHAT THE HELL. Everything was fine though; sleep deprivation doesn’t cause any real physiological problems and won’t kill you. On that note, don’t overthink it either; it is easy to extrapolate that you will feel this terrible all day, but the horrible tiredness waxes and wanes – for me, 3-4pm is worst.
  • DON’T NAP: you can’t nap enough to catch up on a night’s lost sleep, and you will do yourself out of sleep the following night
  • Keep your eyes moisturised . Eye drops can help, as well as the right contacts. Acuvue has some helpful tips for which kinds of lenses can keep your eyes moist, as well as tips for lens comfort in general. I have very dry eyes that are affected badly by lack of sleep so using the correct contacts has been essential.
  • Get up and walk around a lot, preferably in fresh air – your brain processes where the sun is in the sky and this resets your body clock so you have better chance of sleeping that night – also good for jet lag, apparently.
  • Don’t shop: you will buy irrational things (sleep is when you process emotions, which is apparently why a lack of sleep makes you tearful and irrational)
  • Lemsip is quite a good toddy I find: paracetamol for any headaches or pain, lots of sugar to perk you up, caffeine (depending on which variation it is), with the added placebo effect of taking medicine.
  • Berocca – probably psychological, but berocca ‘boost’ does seem to perk me up. Although, as MadFather said the other week, he would take my recommendations on health products when I am the picture of health myself

3 thoughts on “How to survive a day on no sleep

  1. You needed a LOT of sleep as a baby…

    As someone who has the other form of sleep deprivation (I love you, EarlyNiece), I wholly recommend a 20-minute snooze to perk you up.

  2. Honestly I disagree with a lot of your points here, but understand that everyone is different and therefore different things work different ways. I was recommended that I cut caffeine down to one coffee a day, and before lunchtime, which I have found certainly helps. Also naps work for me, the best amount of time is 40 minutes as that is one sleep cycle, waking up in the middle of a sleep cycle is usually what causes you to feel worse when waking. In general I have found that forcing myself to at least go through the motions of getting ready for bed and forcing myself up at the same time each day has helped, but then again, recently my insomnia has decided it doesn’t want me to beat it and I’ve started waking up in the middle of the night (actually, around 4-5am) and not being able to get back to sleep, as opposed to before when I just struggled to get to sleep.

    Anyway, hope some of this is helpful to you or your readers, thank you for taking the time to share what works with us. One more thing is not going on a computer/looking at a screen for at least 1hr before bed (says the girl typing past her bedtime), as that stimulates the brain too much. Personally I’ve found writing in my diary helps clear all the to-do lists and thoughts going round in my head which gives me a better chance to get to sleep. Sorry for going on and on, didn’t mean to take over your comments, eek!

    • All good points – everybody is different! My point re caffeine wasn’t how to ensure you sleep the next night – it wasn’t really assuming it’s to do with insomnia, it was just how to make a day on no sleep better. I’m probably not qualified to write a post on how to bear insomnia!!

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