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Despite our best intentions, it’s tough to escape the occasional sleepless night. Perhaps you burned the midnight oil catching up on extra work, or you lost track of time on the dance floor, or maybe you woke up mid-slumber and just couldn’t fall back asleep. In any case, the snag in your sleep schedule can make the next day a groggy struggle. But according to sleep psychologist Joshua Tal, PhD, the sleepiness from a singular all-nighter doesn’t actually have to extend much beyond a couple days. As for precisely how long it takes to recover from sleep deprivation, the answer depends on what led to your sleepless night in the first place, and also your mental approach to the situation.
First, it’s important to note that how you recover from sleep deprivation after one single sleepless night differs from how you might handle the effects of chronic insomnia. If you’re not clocking the recommended seven to eight hours of shut-eye each night for several nights in a row, you’ll accumulate sleep debt that then needs to be repaid in full (which may be possible to do by catching up on the weekend).
By contrast, a single sleepless night may not actually be worth, well, losing sleep over. “A critical ingredient to consider is control,” says Dr. Tal. “Did you decide to stay up all night, or did you want to sleep but couldn’t manage to do so? The timelines for how long it takes to recover from sleep deprivation in these two scenarios are different.”
Typically, when a person feels in control of their sleep and can be at peace with the decision that they made to stay awake all night, they may feel tired the next day, but will also be more apt to fall asleep easily at their usual time that night, and effectively recover from the sleep loss within one to two days of reverting to that normal schedule, says Dr. Tal.
“The lack of control over sleep causes you to worry, and the more you worry about sleep, the more likely it is to evade you the next night, too.” –Joshua Tal, PhD
On the flip side, someone who tried to sleep but tossed and turned all night instead tends to have a different recovery timeline and experience. “The lack of control over sleep causes you to worry, and the more you worry about sleep, the more likely it is to evade you the next night, too,” says Dr. Tal. So, if the anxious cloud hovering over your sleep causes you to delay your bedtime the next night and for a few consecutive nights after that, too, then you start to shift into the territory of circadian-rhythm issues, adds Dr. Tal, making it tougher to realign your internal clock toward a healthy sleep schedule.
The best thing you can do to reduce the recovery time after a bout of sleeplessness, then, is to not stress over the situation. Below, Dr. Tal shares more actionable tips for shortening how long it takes to recover from sleep deprivation of a single night.
1. Change the narrative around sleep.
It’s good to prioritize sleep–particularly because getting sufficient sleep is linked to the health of so many body systems–but be wary of over-prioritizing it or putting it on a pedestal. “I always tell my patients not to turn sleep into an unrequited love,” says Dr. Tal. “The more you chase sleep and let it balloon into something that you desperately want but can’t have, the more you’ll effectively scare it away.”
Instead, make the active mental decision to be okay with a fitful or sleep-free night every now and then, and view each night as another positive opportunity to get the sleep you need. (Again, this is a different situation from chronic or comorbid insomnia, both of which should be treated with support from a medical professional.)
2. Take a power nap the next afternoon.
“Up to half an hour between the hours of 1 and 3 p.m. should be the maximum length of time for a nap; however, any longer than that, and you could dip into deeper stages of sleep, which can use up some of what we call your sleep drive, which is the natural drive you feel to sleep at night,” says Dr. Tal. By contrast, a brief 30-minute nap can help you combat fatigue and even boost your mood without interfering with your ability to fall asleep later on.
3. Get back on your usual sleep schedule the next night–and don’t overcompensate.
Returning to your usual sleep pattern the night after a bout of sleeplessness will help preserve your circadian rhythm (which is your internal 24-hour clock that causes you to get sleepy around the same time each night and wake up around the same time each morning). If you feel extra-tired in the evening following your sleep-free night, you can go to bed a bit sooner, but Dr. Tal recommends not adjusting your usual bedtime more than an hour .
To contextualize why overcompensating with too much sleep can make matters worse, Dr. Tal compares sleep to chocolate cake. “If someone doesn’t eat chocolate cake one night after dinner, you wouldn’t ask them the next night if they want two slices of cake to make up for it,” he says. “The opportunity for cake, like sleep, would just present itself the following night.”
In that same vein, there’s something to be said for quality of sleep, as opposed to mere quantity regarding how long it actually takes to recover from sleep deprivation. Yes, you should still aim for the sweet spot of seven to eight hours of shut-eye per night, but when you happen to skip out on sleep for one night, your body will naturally work to recoup the loss by way of higher-quality zzz’s the following night, says Dr. Tal.
“Sleep is self-correcting, so whenever you miss out on some of those deeper stages of sleep, your body can over-correct by giving you a higher prevalence of that high-quality sleep over the course of the following few nights, even if you’re sleeping the same total amount of time as usual.” Which is all to say, when you fall short on sleep for a single night, don’t sweat it: You can, quite literally, rest assured that your body will have it handled in (almost) no time.
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