Do you ever worry that a “poor” night’s sleep will spoil the next day? The worry itself can interfere with sleeping well. One way to deal with this problem is to employ the Cognitive Therapy component of the SomniSkills Program (CBT-I).
The essence of Cognitive Therapy is that our thoughts influence how we feel. If I asked you to make yourself feel sad, what would you do? Most people would think about something sad. This exercise shows that your thoughts can affect your feelings. For many situations, our thoughts have a greater impact on our reactions than the event itself. That also to applies to our thoughts about how well we slept the night before. Let me explain.
Research has shown that, regardless of how well we actually sleep, our beliefs about well we slept will alter how we feel the next day. If we think we poorly slept the night before, we will feel worse the next day, regardless of how well we actually slept. If we think we slept well, we will feel better the next day, regardless of how well we actually slept. In other words, our beliefs about how well we slept the night before have a greater influence on how we feel the next day than how well we actually slept!
In these studies, participants with insomnia wore an Actigraph, a device that objectively measures sleep duration and quality. However, regardless of the actual actigraph readings, participants were randomly informed that the Actigraph showed they had either a “poor” or a “good” night’s sleep. In other words, the feedback they were given about how well they slept was not based on their actual sleep data. Those who were told they slept “poorly” did not really sleep any worse than those told they had a “good” night’s sleep. Therefore, any differences in how they felt the next day were due to differences in their beliefs about how well they slept, not how they actually slept.
Here is what the researchers found: When informed they had a “poor” night’s sleep, participants reported having a “bad” next day. They had more negative sleep-related thoughts (e.g., “I can’t cope today,” “I didn’t get enough sleep last night,” “I feel tired”). They paid more attention to bodily sensations associated with poor sleep (e.g., heavy/sore eyes, feeling tired). They focused to a greater extent on whether they were functioning adequately (e.g., whether their concentration or performance was adequate). They were also more likely to avoid activities the next day (e.g., cancel daytime plans, cancel exercise, take a nap). In contrast, when informed that they had a “good” night’s sleep, participants reported having a much better day. They felt more alert, less sleepy, and their mood improved as the day wore on.
These findings provide strong support for the idea that our beliefs about how well we sleep have a greater impact on how we feel the next day than how well we actually slept.
Here are some ways to ward off erroneous negative expectations that can spoil your day after a “bad” night’s sleep:
1. If you tend to think that a bad night’s sleep is going to ruin your day, use the Cognitive Therapy for Insomnia Worksheet to evaluate that belief. List the evidence for and against the thought. The research above should be included as evidence against the thought. Also, think back on the times you had a bad night’s sleep. Did it actually ruin the next day? How bad was it really? Was the entire day bad, or just some parts were rough? Try to develop a more reasonable and balanced way of thinking about the effects of a “bad” night’s sleep.
2. If you have a “bad” night’s sleep, do not assume the next day will be a bad one. This research should open your mind to the possibility that the next day might not be as bad as you expect. Try simply observing how the day goes rather than buying into negative expectations. At the end of the day, assess how it actually went for you.
3. Better yet, conduct a Behavioral Experiment. When you wake up after a “bad” night’s sleep, write down your expectations about how the day will go. Use a 10-point scale, ranging from 0-10. A zero rating means it will be an extremely bad day. A “10” means it will be an extremely good day. A “5” means you expect the day to be neither bad nor good. Then continue with the plans you already had. At the end of the day, assess how the day actually went overall, using the same 10-point scale. Was it as bad as you expected? Repeat that behavioral experiment at least a few more times to see if the results change. Pay attention to what might be responsible for how good or bad a day it turned out to be.
For a proper experiment, you should also do the same thing after some “good” night’s sleep. Write down your expectations for how the day will go, using the same 10-point scale. Go about your day. At the end of the day, assess how the day went overall using the same 10-point scale.
Compare the results. Were they really that different? What seems to have influenced how good or bad a day it was? You might learn that factors other than sleep play a greater role in determining how your day goes.
4. Don’t avoid activities after a “bad” night’s sleep. The research found that people who thought they slept poorly were more likely to cancel daytime plans and exercise. The first Sleep Hygiene recommendation in the SomniSkills Workbook is “Don’t Avoid.” Avoiding activities because you had a bad night’s sleep is likely to backfire for many reasons. It allows more time to dwell on how bad you are feeling. Being active will help distract you from dwelling on how you slept. Being active can also increase your sleep drive. Exercise and physical activity are likely to improve your mood during the day. Avoiding activities is likely to reinforce your fear of insomnia. By continuing with your planned activities, you make insomnia less of a negative influence. You will be proving to yourself that a “bad” night’s sleep will not ruin your day.
Once again, you do not have to take my word for it. Do some Behavioral Experiments to find out for yourself. Use the 10-point scale described above to experiment with days when you do or do not avoid activities after a “bad” night’s sleep. See what happens when you keep your regular schedule, even when you think it will be much too difficult. If you do not normally exercise, experiment with adding some kind of physical activity to your schedule on days when you do not sleep well. Even going for a short walk might be surprisingly helpful.
In summary, changing your thoughts and behaviors after a “bad” night’s sleep can make a big difference in how you feel the next day. Do not to fall prey to the erroneous belief that a “bad” night’s sleep necessarily means the next day will be bad. Be aware of your negative expectations. Evaluate the validity of those expectations using behavioral experiments. Don’t change your plans. Take on an experimental attitude. Try adding activities that will energize you and make you feel better. Don’t let a “bad” night’s sleep ruin your day!
Semler CN, Harvey AG. Misperception of sleep can adversely affect daytime functioning in insomnia. Behavior Research & Therapy. 2005 Jul;43(7):843-56. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2004.06.016.
Gavriloff D, Sheaves B, Juss A, Espie CA, Miller CB, Kyle SD. Sham sleep feedback delivered via actigraphy biases daytime symptom reports in people with insomnia: Implications for insomnia disorder and wearable devices. Journal of Sleep Research. 2018 Dec;27(6):e12726. doi: 10.1111/jsr.12726.