Ideally, every night you would drift off to sleep at a reasonable hour and wake fully refreshed the next day. But here in the real world, there are late-night parties, loud neighbors, pressing work deadlines, and newborn babies to contend with. Sometimes, we all get a terrible night's sleep.
Does that mean you're doomed to exhaustion, foggy-headedness, and poor performance the next day?
Actually, no, according to some fascinating recent research. While no one is arguing that long-term sleep deprivation is anything but catastrophic for your physical and mental functioning, apparently it's possible to fake your way through a run of a couple of bad nights.
The placebo effect and sleep
"A 2014 study on 'placebo sleep' found that when people were told they'd had a good night's sleep (using fake brainwave readings), they performed significantly better on cognitive tests than those who were told they'd slept poorly. The number of hours subjects had actually slept seemed to have little bearing on their test results," reports Olivia Goldhill for Quartz.
The counterintuitive truth seems to be that, thanks to the placebo effect, expectations matter when it comes to how you do after a rough night. Tell yourself you feel like you've been hit by a bus and you're unlikely to perform at your peak. Shake off your lack of rest by assuring yourself you can manage perfectly fine on three hours of shuteye and you'll do remarkably better.
As you'd expect, sleep researchers are eager to stress that this isn't license to stay up all night for weeks on end. "If you have to miss a night or two, then you can try and fake yourself some energy, but consistent quality sleep is better than trying to fake it," Shelby Harris, director of behavioral sleep medicine at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, told Quartz. But it's handy to know that how you feel and how you expect to feel are so closely related.
Ideal sleep versus real-world sleep
It's also worth noting that this study isn't the only one looking into the gap between sleep expectations and sleep reality. Separate studies have found that despite contemporary guidelines to aim for seven or eight hours a night, hunter-gatherers, who are presumably not up all night binge watching Breaking Bad, only average around six and a half. Historical research also suggests that nighttime waking, which many classify as disturbed sleep today, was an expected part of life for centuries.
In short, your sleep problems might be, at least in part, an issue of warped expectations and excessive worry. Serious insomnia is another thing entirely, but if you're fretting that your sleep doesn't match up with the current ideal, then try chilling out and paying attention to how you feel without prejudgment. If you worry less about not being well rested, you might end up feeling way better.
What's your top tip for getting through the next day after a terrible night's sleep?