Can’t sleep before a big trip? Here’s how to get some shut-eye.

by Сашка

When faced with uncertainties of travel day, our primal ‘fight or flight’ kicks in

Conventional wisdom says that you should get a good night’s rest before a big trip. But for many travelers, logging even a few hours of shut-eye seems like an impossible ask. The countdown to your departure can be a living nightmare of disrupted sleep, stress dreams or anxious wakefulness. However, a number of strategies can help keep the worries out of your bedroom — and head.

“Travel causes a lot of people to have poor sleep,” said Sara Nowakowski, a licensed psychologist and associate professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “It can bring on stress to even the most seasoned traveler.”

When faced with uncertainties, unknowns or other threats to our routines, our primal “fight or flight” instinct will kick in. Whether you are trying to evade a woolly mammoth or catch an early-morning flight, the survival mechanism is the same. In anticipation of a stressful situation, sleep experts say your body will release adrenaline and cortisol, a hormonal rush that will increase your heart rate and sharpen your senses. Instead of winding down for bed, you’re warming up for a challenge.

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“When our body knows something is coming, our stress hormones respond,” said Karin Johnson, director of the Baystate Regional Sleep Medicine Program in Massachusetts. “These arousal systems are going to try to prepare us for that 5:30 [a.m.] flight.”

Meanwhile, in our heads, we may fixate on the what-ifs and worst-case scenarios. “These maladaptive thought patterns often cause anxiety or stress to spiral out of control and make it difficult to turn off the brain at the end of the day to fall asleep,” said Patrick Bigaouette, a psychiatrist with the Mayo Clinic Health System in Minnesota.

Though too much worrying can sabotage sleep, a small dose can actually help you. “There is such a thing as healthy anxiety,” Bigaouette said. “The benefit of low-level anxiety is that it gives you the drive to be prepared for your trip and ensures that you’re not forgetting anything, rather than being too lax and needing to scramble at the last minute or missing your flight.”

Bigaouette credits anxiety for motivating him and his now-husband during their 4,500-mile road trip in 2020. His jitters roused them like morning reveille. “The logistics of driving across the country certainly kept me up at night, a perfect recipe for getting up early to drive,” he said. “Completely worth the insomnia.”

In honor of National Sleep Awareness Month, we asked sleep experts how to get a restful night before a big travel day.

Why you can’t sleep before a flight or road trip

Most travelers are genuinely excited for their upcoming holiday. However, their euphoria might be entwined with a sense of dread, especially these days, when flying is a minefield of airline meltdowns, onboard fires, extreme turbulence and near-collisions.

“Most anxiety and stress comes from a lack of control,” said Russell Foster, director of the Sir Jules Thorn Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute at the University of Oxford. “People tend to think that they don’t get stressed when they’re asleep, but they can get stressed.”

The worries that bubble up during the day can seep into your nighttime activities. They can keep you awake like a nagging toothache and prevent you from falling into a deep and peaceful slumber. During lighter stages of sleep, you are more susceptible to frequent awakenings. The tiniest noise — a barking dog or your partner’s snort — may rouse you. Getting back to sleep might become harder, adding more frazzle to your already unsettled state.

“Now you’re stressing about sleep itself, and it will make insomnia more likely to happen,” Johnson said.

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Stress has no boundaries and may invade your dreams. The imaginary scenarios unfurling in your head — that you’ve forgotten your passport or showed up at the wrong airport — can feel disturbingly real. The nightmares can also exacerbate your anxiety.

“During light, shallow sleep, you are more likely to remember stress dreams and commit them to memory,” Nowakowski said. “You’ll have more awakenings, so you will remember them.”

Stress isn’t the only saboteur; circadian clocks can also disrupt one’s ability to sleep. Extreme departure times can upset your rhythms, such as an early-morning flight for a later riser. Your internal timekeeper is like a teenager: Neither wants to be disturbed.

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According to Foster, the side effects of sleep deprivation include reduced attention and communication skills, mood fluctuations, a high rate of irritability, impulsivity and loss of empathy. “You may fail to pick up on the social signals of someone you’re traveling with,” he said. “Normal social courtesies could be pushed into the background.”

He added that exhausted brains cling to negative experiences and forget positive ones. “You’re going to be obsessing about the negative stuff, which is not going to make your trip very pleasant,” he said.

To stay sharp for a long day of travel, the fatigued traveler might self-medicate. Caffeine is a stimulant, and alcohol is a depressant that can take the edge off too many espresso shots. Alone or together, they can wreak havoc on the body.

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“If you’re tired, you will be more likely to be dependent on stimulants like coffee and then will try to reverse stimulation with alcohol on the plane,” Foster said. “This is dangerous, depending on what you are going to do when you land.”

The best way to cope: Prepare and pack in advance

The first step to falling asleep: Banish your anxieties.

Lynn Bufka, a psychologist on the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America team, recommends addressing your concerns by saying each one aloud, a method she calls “anxiety management mode.” Once you’ve aired your fears, ask yourself: How realistic are these worries, and what can you do about them?

Planning can neutralize many of them. For example, if you are nervous about sitting apart from family members, reserve a block of seats on the plane. (United recently changed its family seating policy.) If you feel unsettled about arriving at a foreign airport without a ride to the hotel, arrange a pickup. Worried about going hungry on the flight or getting stuck with the fish option? Preorder a meal.

“On the front end, remember the things that get you overwhelmed and spend more time than you might have in the past to get the preparations done,” Bufka said.

The experts also advise against last-minute, frenzied packing. Foster said to build your wardrobe around your itinerary, an organizational strategy that will help you remember critical clothing items. He also suggests assembling a duplicate toiletry bag that is always ready to go. In addition, gather all of your important documents and medications in advance. (Both collections require a clear head.)

“Absolutely structure everything, so you don’t have to worry about it,” Foster said. “Make all of the decisions several days before.”

For situations you can’t control, arrange contingency plans. For example, research alternative flights in case your flight is delayed or canceled. If you are worried about the carrier losing your luggage, throw extra clothes and a toothbrush into your carry-on. The goal is to feel as if you’re prepared for any surprises tossed your way.

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Practice better sleep hygiene

Improve your odds of falling asleep by observing good sleep habits.

For instance, avoid heavy meals at least two hours before bedtime and double the abstinence time for caffeine. Don’t drink alcohol several days before your departure; you need to stay hydrated. Practice light yoga but hold off on heavy exercise several hours before you plan to crawl into bed. Sip chamomile tea. Light a lavender candle. Read a book or work on a puzzle. Take a hot bath or shower. Listen to a meditation tape or podcast. (For medicated sleep aids, consult your health-care provider.)

“Whatever works for you, stick to it,” Bufka said.

When you are under the covers, switch off any gadgets with bright lights, which will stimulate your mind, and ignore emails or social media, which might ignite your stress. If you wake up mid-sleep, resist the urge to check the time. “The more you look at the clock, the more you’ll have these thoughts that will keep you awake,” Johnson said.

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If you struggle to fall back asleep, Bufka said to accept that you are awake and don’t berate yourself. “Try to change the talk in your head,” she said. “Don’t put pressure on yourself. Deal with it versus saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve got to get to sleep.’”

To lull yourself back to sleep, practice breathing exercises, tense and relax your muscles, or play mental games. For example, try to see how many smaller words you can create from one long word. Bufka’s mother mentally redecorates her friends’ homes.

If you suffer from stress dreams, keep a pad of paper by your bedside and jot down the stressors exposed in your dreams. In the morning, check the list to make sure that you have addressed your worries.

Finally, to protect yourself from oversleeping, set several alarms. If all goes well, you will be rudely awakened by them.

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