But first, it’s helpful to know why it can be such a struggle in the first place. “When there’s a big event coming up, our bodies and minds get revved up in preparation—and for good reason,” says sleep psychologist Jade Wu, PhD, sleep advisor at Mattress Firm and expert on the Chasing Sleep podcast. “Big events, even positive ones, require our fight-or-flight system to be ready for action.” Come nightfall, however, this can certainly backfire: “The psychophysiological arousal that ‘fight-or-flight’ entails can override our sleepiness, making it hard to drift off,” she says.
“The psychophysiological arousal [triggered by a big event] can override our sleepiness, making it hard to drift off.” —Jade Wu, PhD, sleep psychologist
At the same time, it’s possible that anxiety or fear surrounding the big event itself can keep you from dozing, says Michael Breus, PhD, sleep specialist and clinical psychologist. These concerns can send your mind spiraling, triggering all sorts of racing thoughts, “even irrational ones,” he says, like, for example, “worries that it’ll snow on your wedding in Hawaii.” While this type of thought might not even occur to you during the day and would be simple to squash with logic if it did, once you’re lying in bed at night consumed by worries, it’s tougher to think clearly—and easier to fall down a sleep-inhibiting rabbit hole.
Pre-event insomnia also tends to strike more often in people who have higher levels of anxiety in general, people with known sleep disorders like chronic insomnia, and people with gastrointestinal issues like reflux, adds Dr. Breus. And that’s basically because nerves surrounding the event can compound the existing sleep-related issue. “If you already struggle with difficulty falling or staying asleep, the extra boost in psychophysiological arousal triggered by the event will make it extra difficult to sleep,” says Dr. Wu. “This will likely make you even more anxious or frustrated, which turns up the arousal even more.”
The same thing goes if you already don’t keep a very consistent sleep-wake pattern and tend to go to bed and wake up at different times depending on your day and night activities. In this case, “your brain may already have a hard time figuring out when it's ‘go’ time versus ‘chill’ time,” says Dr. Wu. And if you toss in a big event looming the next day, “the extra excitement can trick your brain into thinking it's just another evening of working or playing late,” she says.
No matter the reason, though, pre-event insomnia can be especially annoying, given the fact that getting good sleep would likely help you perform to your fullest the next day. Below, sleep psychologists walk through steps you can take beforehand and in the moment to avoid tossing and turning the next time you're gearing up for a big day.
How to actually get good sleep before a big day, according to sleep psychologists
1. Manage your sleep hygiene during the day beforehand
Sleep hygiene describes the daily habits that facilitate good sleep—and it’s particularly important to maintain ahead of any night where you suspect something else (like nerves about a big event) could interfere with your sleep, says Dr. Breus. Keeping up good sleep hygiene entails things like avoiding caffeine starting in the afternoon, dimming the lights in the evening, steering clear of screens for an hour before bed, using your bed only for sleeping (and sex), as well as ensuring your mattress, sheets, and pillows are comfortable and supportive. Basically, you want to set yourself up for all-around sleep success.
It’s also helpful to exercise the day before a big event in order to relieve stress and build up your sleep drive, and to avoid alcohol the evening beforehand, because while it might make you drowsy, “it will only disrupt the quality of the sleep that you end up getting,” says Dr. Breus.
2. Cut off preparation for the event or activity at least an hour before your ideal bedtime
“Make a hard stop for event preparation,” says Dr. Wu. “Decide ahead of time that by, say, 9 p.m. the night before the event, you are 100 percent done, and any remaining imperfections will simply have to work.” This way, you allow yourself time to switch into sleep mode before you need to doze off; otherwise, you might find you're not sleepy when you actually get into bed.
In the time after you’re done preparing and before you climb into bed, do something relaxing and enjoyable to distract yourself, such as reading, watching a TV show, or chatting with a friend, she says.
3. Know that it’s normal—natural, even—to struggle with sleep before a big event
Part of figuring out how to sleep before a big day could be just realizing that you’re not alone, says Dr. Breus: If the event you’re nervous about involves other people, those folks are probably going to have trouble sleeping, too. And if it doesn’t, you can take comfort in the fact that people in your life have most definitely had the same struggle ahead of their own big days. “Even if you’re well-prepped, your brain is naturally going to be on overdrive at least a little,” says Dr. Breus. “And this is totally normal behavior.”
4. Stick to your usual pre-bed routine
It may be tempting to switch things up on the night before a big event in the interest of maximizing your sleep or preparation—but that would be misguided. Dr. Wu suggests winding down with your typical nighttime ritual. So, if you usually listen to a meditation or journal or have a hot tea, don’t skip it on the night before a big day. Good sleep thrives on a routine, and there’s no reason to throw yours for a loop if it tends to work for you.
5. Remember that it’s not the end of the world if you wind up not sleeping well
It’s certainly easier said than done, but taking the pressure off yourself to get a great night’s sleep before a big day can work wonders when it comes to actually doing so. In fact, stressing over the sleep you will or won’t get will almost always backfire, says Dr. Wu. “Remember that if it’s an important event, your brain will still rally even after a not-so-great night of sleep and will help you perform,” she says. “You don't need perfect sleep every night to feel and do well.”
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