How to Handle One Night of Insomnia: Do Nothing

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Photo: Justin Horrocks/Getty Images

When insomnia strikes in the middle of the night — when you’ve woken up for absolutely no good reason and just can’t seem to fall back to sleep — chances are, you do what I do: You let yourself sleep in the next morning, and maybe even take a nap later that afternoon, in an attempt to get your sleep schedule back on track.

And yet the advice about what to do when this happens offered by Dr. Michael Perlis, the director of the behavioral sleep medicine program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, is so much simpler than that, in that his advice is — nothing. Do nothing, and you’ll improve your chances of keeping this one night of bad sleep from morphing into chronic insomnia. “Don’t sleep in,” Perlis told The Wall Street Journal. “Don’t nap. Don’t go to bed early the next day and everything will turn out fine.”

The thinking here — and Perlis explained this at length to Science of Us last fall — is that, yes, this means you’ll have one terrible, exhausted day. But that’s also kind of the point: It’s just one day. “Compensating for sleep loss can fuel chronic insomnia,” as the WSJ phrases it, “because it can make it tougher to sleep the next night.” Use Perlis’s somewhat strange advice, on the other hand, and you’ll quickly fall asleep the next night, thus saving yourself from many more sleepless nights. It’s a technique he uses with his own patients, he said. “People get very focused on total sleep time, on how much sleep they got,” he told me last year. “And they forget what actually pisses them off is not six hours of sleep — that’s not great. But waiting for sleep, being in bed at the middle of the night staring at the ceiling? That’s what you want to get rid of.”