WWhen you wake up on the wrong side of the bed, so to speak, it can be difficult to imagine how the day could possibly go right. Maybe you had a hard time falling asleep the night before, or tossed and turned endlessly. Or maybe you passed out easily but still woke up unrested. In any case, a sluggish or even grumpy start to the morning can cloud your day, but according to sleep and mood experts, it doesn’t necessarily have to. It’s true, you can still feel awake, energetic, and, yes, happy when you’re short on sleep by changing your mindset and putting your body into wake mode.
Factors that control the body’s circadian rhythm (or internal 24-hour clock) — from food and exercise to exposure to light — affect the quality of your sleep and the quality of your wakefulness equally. That said, not all waking states are created equal, and it’s possible to engage in activities and behaviors that can help you feel more energetic despite a restless or sleepless night, says clinical psychologist Li Åslund, PhD, sleep expert at the Sleep tracking app sleep cycle.
“If you’re feeling sluggish and want to feel energetic and happy, start acting energetic and happy.” —Gretchen Rubin, happiness expert
The same malleability applies to your mood as well. It can be tempting to come to terms with the fact that waking up grumpy will ruin the day, but this very thought process might keep you in the mood. “We often think that we act because of how we feel, but to a very large extent, we feel because of how we act,” says happiness expert and author Gretchen Rubin, host of Happier with Gretchen Rubin Podcasts and Founder of the Happier App. “So if you’re feeling sluggish and you want to feel energetic and happy, start by acting energetic and happy: put on a smile, energize your voice, pick up your tempo, sing out loud.”
Of course, all of this is easier said than done – especially when fatigue or lethargy really gets in the way of everything. Below, experts share steps you can take to put your body into Go mode and feel more awake after a bad night’s sleep.
13 expert tips to feel awake, energetic and even happy when you’re sleep-deprived
1. First, get some bright light
Light is one of the single biggest factors that signals the brain to be awake, and that’s even more important when you’re trying to fight off a looming wave of fatigue after a crappy night’s sleep. “Starting the day with bright light, especially in the first hour after waking, can help our biological clock reset and essentially charge its battery to keep us going throughout the day,” says sleep behavior expert Carleara Weiss, PhD, MS , RN, Sleep Science Advisor for Aeroflow Sleep. “You can just turn on the lights and open the blinds or use a light therapy box or sunrise alarm clock.”
Stepping out into the sunlight would be even better though. “Not only does sunlight help turn off the melatonin faucet in your head, but the fresh air also helps you wake up,” says clinical psychologist Michael Breus, PhD, sleep consultant for Oura. Add some exercise with a morning walk, and you’ll also work up an appetite for a filling, energizing breakfast (more on that below).
2. Make it a goal to stay hydrated
The act of sleeping is inherently dehydrating, says Dr. Breus. You’re not replenishing your body’s water reservoir for the entire duration of your slumber – and your body’s natural regeneration processes are in overdrive throughout the night. That alone speaks for a glass of water first thing every day. But if you’re feeling particularly sluggish, you find it all the more necessary.
3. Move your body
Any type of exercise, indoors or outdoors, is a helpful jump-start for your body clock, says Dr. White. And if exercise is something you rightly enjoy, you’ll boost your mood and energy levels all at once, Rubin says. That’s because exercise unleashes a whole cascade of feel-good neurotransmitters, starting with serotonin and norepinephrine and ending with endorphins (if you have enough time to exercise for an hour or so).
If you wake up too tired to really get your body moving, you can also try stretching or a short yoga flow to gently stimulate circulation. What if the lethargy creeps in later in the day? Try moving your body again every 60 minutes, even if it’s only for a minute or so, says Dr. Breus.
4. Jump into a cold shower
The jolt of cold water can bring you straight to your senses. If you can take it, Åslund suggests a cold water shower (or just a cold water face wash) to instantly wake you up when you need it most.
5. Eat a balanced breakfast
If you skip breakfast, you’re missing out on important nutrients that are difficult to make up for throughout the day. But perhaps even more immediately, it leaves you running without fuel, which isn’t what you want when you’re already trying to figure out how to make you feel awake with little or no sleep. So it’s important to eat – and ideally a high-fiber, high-protein breakfast, like avocado toast with eggs or oatmeal.
Not to mention that the act of eating breakfast has a powerful impact on circadian rhythms. “Eating food is a signal to the body’s internal clock that it’s daytime, and therefore to you that it’s time to start your day,” says Åslund. When your digestive system springs to life in response to your meal, so will you.
6. Have a late morning coffee
If you’re working with little sleep, you may need a caffeine hit to function — which is totally fine. But resist the urge to make it the first thing you do; It’s best to wait for the natural rise in cortisol to subside upon waking, and then replenish with your coffee around 9:30 a.m. or later.
And yes, you can go back for more if you feel the need for a boost later in the day. “Just keep in mind that the safe recommendation is 400 mg daily,” says Dr. White. “You can divide this amount into four to five caffeinated drinks by 3 p.m. at the latest, because caffeine can take four to six hours to digest.”
7. Cross one simple thing off your to-do list early in the day
Feeling productive can provide a quick boost of energy that may be just the thing to motivate you for the day ahead.
“If you can push yourself to do something that’s on your list — maybe go through the mail on the counter or take out the recycling — that’ll release energy first thing in the morning and give you some momentum,” says Rubin. It’s a bit like, ‘Once I’ve done this, I can do the next thing and the thing after that.’ “When something falls off you early, you just feel lighter,” says Rubin.
8. Doing someone a small favor
It’s a cliché, but true: making someone feel good is a quick way to make yourself feel better (and possibly even help you live longer). So if it’s a grumpy attitude that’s threatening to torpedo your day, gather the strength to do a good deed, says Rubin. “It could be as simple as introducing a friend via email, or texting your neighbor your plumber’s name, or just texting a friend that you’re thinking of them,” she says. The benefit is a double whammy: not only do you feel good about doing good, but you also take a moment to connect with another human being, which also results in a mood lift.
9. Use detached self-talk to motivate yourself
Speaking to yourself in the third person can make you your own motivational coach, says Rubin. It could be something as simple as, “Hey, [insert your name here], Pull yourself together. You didn’t sleep well, but you usually do, so it’s no big deal,” or whatever words will help you not wallow in the darkness of poor sleep.
10. Avoid as much refined sugar as possible
In terms of long-term health, eating processed sugar is not good for many reasons — namely, its ability to increase internal inflammation and accelerate cellular aging. But when you’re trying to feel awake after a fitful night’s sleep, sugar’s immediate effects are particularly devastating.
On the one hand, you’ll probably want more sugar than you normally would. “Poor sleep impairs the regulation of the hormones leptin and ghrelin, and consequently increases feelings of hunger and cravings for processed foods,” says Dr. White. But if you’re in this physical state, you might want to consider resisting temptation, as it tends to offer a quick burst of energy followed by an even worse crash, says Dr. Breus. This puts you in a position where you feel even less energetic than when you started – starting the cycle all over again.
Instead, focus on light and frequent low-sugar meals to keep your blood sugar and energy levels consistent throughout the day, says Åslund.
11. Take a nap
That afternoon dip around 2 or 3 p.m. is even more real after a bad night’s sleep. And embracing it by laying on the couch for 20 to 30 minutes might be just the thing to deal with some of that sleep guilt. Just make sure your nap doesn’t stretch out longer, lest you risk slipping into a deeper sleep stage that will be all the more difficult to wake up from.
12. Make something looser
It’s easy to let the simple fact that you’ve had a bad night’s sleep spiral you into worry. After all, sleep is so important that many of us worry about not getting enough of it and the consequences for our performance and health, says Åslund. “But the occasional bad night is normal and happens to all of us,” she says. “If your daytime sleepiness is not due to a sleep disorder that may require treatment [meaning it isn’t chronic]giving yourself a break and lowering your expectations of your performance the next day may be the best thing you can do.” Paradoxically, adopting this mindset also makes it easier to avoid any sleep stress, which also makes it harder to fall asleep the following night.
13. Set up a simple treat for yourself
Knowing a reward in your future might be enough to keep you going, even if you’re barely sleeping. “I often suggest having a list of healthy ‘treats’ so you can set them up as a reward whenever you know you’re going to need a little energy,” says Rubin. “It can be a short puzzle, playing with your dog, watching a scene from your favorite movie, lighting a candle, or anything else that you know will help set your mood in a positive direction.”
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