Every night, like clockwork, my eyes shoot open at 3:30 a.m. On lucky nights, I'll fall back to sleep within minutes. But too often, my mind takes over and left to its own devices in the dark, things can get ugly.
We know by now that losing sleep is not a healthy activity. For one, sleep is critical to brain function. It helps you store and consolidate your memories. It also clears out your brain's waste—the stuff that is believed to cause Alzheimer's disease, according to a recent study published in Science magazine.
But important as it is, not every night of sleep goes as planned. Some nights you're lying in the dark, staring at the ceiling while your mind hurtles full-throttle through some existential crisis. Or the thing you've ignored all day/week/month/year has suddenly decided to race to the front of your mind and your ears are ringing with its urgency.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, more than 50% of adults in the U.S. experience one or more symptoms of insomnia at least a few nights a week.
Insomnia takes many forms—from adjustment insomnia which lasts a short time and is usually caused by stress to childhood behavioral insomnia to poor sleep hygiene induced insomnia to insomnia from drug or substance abuse to insomnia caused by mental illness—to name just a few. And all of these sleepless nights are expensive—rounding out to more than $63 billion in lost workplace productivity a year in the U.S.
Still, insomnia hasn't been entirely bad. Successful Insomniacs of the world have included Margaret Thatcher, Bill Clinton, Charles Dickens, Marcel Proust, and Madonna. Creative people who cannot sleep at night will often tell you some of their best ideas come to them in the middle of the night—either keeping them from falling asleep or jolting them awake.
Why might this be? In a 2011 article for Psychology Today, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, professor of Business Psychology at University College London wrote that "insomnia is to exceptional achievement what mental illness is to creativity." Ambition and creativity, he says are some of the most productive causes of insomnia. A 2006 study of the sleeping patterns of children published in Creativity Research Journal, explored the link between creativity and insomnia, suggesting "people with notable creative potential were expected to experience more insomnia than other people."
Perhaps the more creative you are, the more prone you might be to sleeplessness. Regardless, those hours of wakefulness at night can be spent in panic or paralysis, or you can do something productive about them.
"What is insomnia, but the gift of more time?" says Michael Perlis, associate professor of psychology and director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Pennsylvania. Perlis is not advocating for purposely losing sleep, but if faced with short-term insomnia, he says, it's best to treat the time productively rather than tossing for hours in bed. Think of insomnia as an opportunity to get stuff done.
Sleep experts will tell you that you should never spend more than 15 minutes awake in bed trying to fall asleep. "What happens is that you start to associate the bed with being awake and insomnia, which is a self-fulfilling prophecy," says Daniel Taylor, associate professor of psychology and director for clinical training at University of North Texas. "You can take something that’s a temporary problem and turn it into a long-term problem." Perlis advises going into another room and doing something that reduces your stress.
I'd be lying if I said I pop out of bed after being awake for more than 15 minutes. Usually, I reach for a notebook and pen that I've placed within arm's reach and, half-delirious and only partially coherent, I'll write. Good ideas—or at least the illusion of good ideas—have come to me on these occasions. But perhaps more importantly, that sense of productivity has helped me fall and stay asleep until at least the sun is out.