Crashing After the Holidays

Post-holiday fatigue has set in, and what you need the most is something you most likely haven’t gotten enough of in weeks – sleep.

Most Americans don’t get enough sleep anyway, says renowned sleep expert James Maas. Studies reveal that while most people need at least eight hours of sleep for optimal performance, more than one-third of the population sleeps less than six hours per night. The holiday period, Maas says, only makes things worse.

“Day by day we’re a nation of walking zombies. If you add in holiday travel, parties, late nights, you’re adding insult to injury,” says Maas, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Cornell University and author of the book Power Sleep.

Bernadette Reese, a New Jersey mother of two teenagers and a college student, concedes that she was dragging even before the holidays. Despite a weeklong winter break from her job, she felt even more tired when the holidays arrived. “That is because of all the shopping and running around I did to make the holiday special,” says Reese, an assistant conference coordinator at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

Sleepless during the holidays

Sleep loss is cumulative, Maas says. So if over the holidays you shopped until you dropped, worked long hours, waited at an airport gate for a delayed flight, entertained a house full of guests or partied long into the night, you just added to your “sleep debt bank account” – as Maas calls it.

If you endured an airline delay or cancellation because of the weather this holiday, you may have tried to rest or catch some sleep in an airport lounge, and that, Maas says, “isn’t much better than no sleep at all.”

Now that you’re back home or back to work, he says it’s time to pay back your sleep debt. “Go to bed an hour or an hour and a half earlier,” Maas says. “As a stop gap, take some power naps.”

“Power naps” that allow you to rest for 20 minutes can be rejuvenating, Maas says. You may need to convince your boss of that, of course. Maas believes the notion of napping during the workday will become more accepted as corporations realize they can increase productivity and reduce errors, accidents and illness.

If your holiday reveling isn’t over (after all, the Super Bowl is still to come), you should know that sleepiness and alcohol are an extremely dangerous mix. The Institute for Traffic Safety reports that alcohol is involved in one-third of the accidents in which the driver fell asleep

One drink on six hours of sleep is like six drinks on eight hours, Maas says. “It’s just as bad as driving with someone who has been up for 19 hours,” he says.

Getting a good night’s sleep

Getting back to normal when you’re sleep deprived isn’t that difficult to do, Maas says, unless you are incredibly stressed or depressed. “When your body needs sleep, it will call for it,” he says. “The thing to do is not defeat it.”

If you do have some trouble getting to sleep, try some of Maas’s “great sleep strategies.”

1. Reduce stress as much as possible.

2. Exercise to stay fit. Exercising in the late afternoon can help deepen sleep. However, a vigorous workout three or four hours before bedtime may interfere with sleep.

3. Stop smoking, avoid alcohol near bedtime and reduce caffeine intake. Caffeine and nicotine are stimulants that can disrupt sleep. Never use alcohol to help yourself fall asleep. Alcohol may help some people feel relaxed, although it can actually disrupt sleep later in the night.

4. Take a warm bath before bed.

5. Maintain a relaxing atmosphere in the bedroom. Do not use the room for arguing, watching exciting or violent television programs, eating, working, or balancing checkbooks.

6. Establish a bedtime ritual. Just as parents turn down the light and read to children, adults should engage in a nightly ritual of reading for pleasure just before turning off the lights. Curl up with a good book. When you’re fully relaxed or when drowsiness sets in, turn off the lights.

7. Have pleasurable sexual activity. It is the one exception to exercising immediately before bedtime.

8. Try some of these bedtime relaxation techniques recommended by the Better Sleep Council:

  • Progressive muscle relaxation is where you tense and relax your muscles in groups starting from the toes and slowly working up the body to the eye muscles and forehead.
  • Yoga
  • Mental imagery and fantasies
  • Deep breathing
  • Counting sheep (the oldest trick in the book but it works)

9. Don’t try too hard to get sleep. If you’re not sleepy after a half hour in bed or if you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep, get up and leave the bedroom. Listen to soft music or do some light reading. When you’re feeling sleepy again, go back to bed.

10. Limit your time in bed. Stress, depression, boredom and partner-pressure may get you going to bed earlier than you need to, Maas says. Older people, fearing a night of several awakenings or light sleep, often go to bed too early, which only exacerbates fragmented sleep. Go to bed only for time you usually need for sleep, and sleep only until refreshed. Staying in bed too long will promote shallow and disturbed overall sleep.