Sometimes, the longer you stay awake, the harder it is to sleep. Whether you’re experiencing your second or third wind and think your body just isn’t ready for bed yet or you’re exhausted but just can’t fall asleep when your head hits the pillow, there are some things you can do to coax yourself to sleep during prolonged insomnia.
If you haven’t slept in days, try this simple two-step process. First, relax as best you can and let exhaustion take over. Your body is ready to rest! Then, figure out what’s causing the insomnia and take the proper steps to work through it.
I know it’s not easy. By the time you’ve been awake for a few days, you’re on edge, moody, sore, and just plain exhausted. Lack of sleep does all kinds of bad things to your body. It can even trick you into thinking you’re not tired!
After an extended bout of insomnia, your brain doesn’t function properly anymore. That’s why it’s so important to attempt to address the exhaustion first before moving on to look for the cause of the problem.
What Happens to Your Body when Your Don’t Sleep for Days?
Some pretty significant things happen to your body when you don’t sleep for days at a time.
After you’re awake for 24 hours, you start to have trouble with memory and judgment and you might even experience impaired coordination. At this point, your level of performance is actually similar to having a blood alcohol level of 0.10 percent. That’s about how intoxicated a 160-pound person would be after five or six beers, a pretty significant impairment.
After 36 hours without sleep, it starts to physically affect your body. Inflammatory markers in your bloodstream rise which can lead to high blood pressure and other heart problems over time. Your hormones are all over the place so your emotions are unreliable. Physical changes vary from person to person but, in my research, I found that some people reported experiencing headaches, forgetting significant chunks of time, and losing motivation to do anything.
At 48 hours, things start to get a little more dangerous. The body automatically shuts down for microsleeps. This is when you actually fall asleep for between 30 and 60 seconds because your body is exhausted and just can’t cope. Microsleeps are similar to blackouts. There’s usually a period of disorientation afterward and you might not even know it’s happening.
Serious problems start at 72 hours. There is when major cognitive deficits kick in. You might experience hallucinations as well as problems with perception, motivation, and concentration. Following conversations is next to impossible and you may start to see things that aren’t really there.
You might be saying to yourself, none of those effects apply to me because I always get a second wind when I can’t sleep so I don’t feel too bad.
That may be true but it’s important to understand what a second wind is.
Second winds are a legitimate your body copes with being tired. They’re a natural consequence of staying awake for long periods of time because your circadian rhythms are cycling from a sleep state to an awake state, even though you haven’t actually slept. This second wind often comes in the morning after being awake all night because your body is used to waking up in the morning, regardless of whether or not you slept the night before.
Second winds usually last about two or three hours before the body crashes and fatigue sets in once again. If you don’t sleep after that, you’ll likely experience a third and fourth wind, too.
How to Fall Asleep after Days of Insomnia
Although there are different kinds of insomnia, not being able to sleep for days is a special case. Know that your body is completely and totally exhausted if you’ve been awake for 24 hours or longer. So, your body is ready. The trick is getting your mind where it needs to be to let it happen and that is a two-part process.
The first thing you should do is try to break the sleepless cycle by cueing your body that it’s time to sleep. By the time you’ve been awake for days on end, your circadian rhythms are all out of whack and your body isn’t sure if it’s day or night but, I promise you, it is exhausted and ready for rest. To help it get there, try the following:
- Sleep in a cool, dark, quiet room
- Avoid screens several hours before bedtime
- Take a warm bath before bed
- Listen to relaxing
- Read a book or magazine (paper, not on a screen)
- Do not eat less than two hours before bed
- Avoid caffeine for at least six hours before bedtime
- Don’t exercise within three hours of bedtime
Once you’ve tackled the short term issues, it’s time to think a little bit deeper about what’s causing your sleep problems in the first place. There are a few different types of insomnia to consider. Identifying the type helps find a solution faster.
Onset insomnia is when you have trouble falling asleep and it’s usually caused by environmental factors. For example, if you like a quiet room when you’re falling asleep but your partner snores or the dog next door barks every night, it’s probably going to keep you awake for a while when you first go to bed.
On the other hand, if you fall asleep easily but wake up throughout the night, it’s maintenance insomnia. This refers to either waking up frequently or waking up once and not being able to fall back asleep.
Onset insomnia is a little easier to fix because all you need are earplugs or a white noise machine to eliminate the cause. That said, if you find that you wake up multiple times a night, every night, there’s probably something else going on. To get to the root of the problem, ask yourself these questions:
- Are you happy with your job?
- Are you feeling overwhelmed with work or other responsibilities?
- Are you satisfied with your relationship status?
- Do you have a strong support network?
- Have you recently experienced a major life change such as divorce, relocating, having a baby, or severe illness?
Once you think about those questions and the things in your life that could be making you lose sleep, it’s time to tackle your anxieties.
Getting Rid of Anxiety
To really start sleeping again, you have to tackle the cause. If you know that there’s something going on in your life that’s bothering you and causing you to lose sleep at night, here are some easy things to try:
- Work on breathing techniques and meditate first thing in the morning and right before bed.
- Take care of yourself! Get a hair cut, paint your nails, or have a spa day.
- Cut out coffee, tea, and soda. Anything with sugar and caffeine can affect you hours later and can cause your stress to ramp up at the end of them.
- Declutter. Sometimes, looking at a neatly organized room helps clear the anxiety and tension in your head and can instantly make you feel calmer.
- Go to bed early to give yourself enough time to fall asleep. There’s nothing worse than laying in bed counting the hours until you have to wake up. Giving yourself a couple of extra hours takes off some of the pressure to fall asleep quickly.
- Give yourself a pep talk. If you’re feeling down or overwhelmed, try to avoid negative thoughts that will only make you feel worse.
- Exercise more. Exercise is one of the best ways to get rid of tension in the body and can help you wind down more easily at night.
Get Help if Necessary
Chronic insomnia quickly leads to sleep deprivation which is harmful to your mind and body. If you’ve tried everything and aren’t having any success, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. See you doctor to rule out any medical reasons for insomnia and consider talking to a therapist to help you work through any stress and anxiety that’s keeping you from getting a good night’s sleep.