Why Can't I Sleep Before a Big Event?

Jan 03, 2021

Trouble Sleeping Before a Big Day

You're in bed, maybe even early, but you're still tossing and turning, thinking about the next day, and you can't turn your brain off no matter how hard you try.

Perhaps it’s the eve of a final exam, the first day of school, or a presentation you have to give. Maybe it’s a wedding, possibly a trip. A new job, or even just an early morning wake up. Some people can't sleep on Sunday nights before the start of a work week. 

Whatever the case, sleep's not happening.

Before long, anxious thoughts start rolling in:

“What will happen if I don’t get some sleep?”

“Am I going to be mentally sharp enough to focus?”

“Will I have enough energy?”

“Will I find the right words?”

"Should I take a sleeping pill?”

“How am I going to make it through this day?”

In anticipation of a big day, it’s pretty common to worry that our performance will somehow suffer without sleep.

In this blog, I talk about special event insomnia, why it happens, and what you can do about it.

What is Special Event Insomnia?

Even the best of sleepers experience event insomnia from time to time. It’s generally triggered by a special event outside the norm of everyday living.

Personally, I struggled with this type of insomnia loooong after my sleep improved. Even with a healthy dose of sleep confidence, special event insomnia hung on for dear life. (And still makes an appearance from time to time). Granted, it’s not like I have a ton of special events going on in my life, but still… 

Typically, a night before a big day consisted of tossing and turning for a few hours, followed by panic, followed by taking a sleeping pill, followed by still not sleeping.

Good times.

The sleeping pills (which didn’t work even a little) left me groggy and out of it the entire next day, so all said and done, I would’ve been better off just staying up all night.

A night-owl literally since birth (no, I don't think this is a "bad" thing), it's no surprise that this pattern is ESPECIALLY fond of showing up before an early morning flight. ✈️   Early morning flights are the absolute bane of my existence.

The night before an early morning flight my inner dialogue usually evolves into something like:

“What if I miss my flight?”

“Will I hear the alarm?”

“How many hours do I have left?”

“Shit, two more hours until I have to get up.”

“Now, what if I don’t sleep TONIGHT, I’ll be completely hosed.”

Then, about 10 minutes before I have to get up, I fall blissfully asleep.

Aaaarrgh 🙄

But I've come a long way...

Previously, event insomnia was such a big issue that I wouldn’t make ANY plans until I knew for sure I’d slept the night before. And we're not talking big, special events, I'm talking simple things like a walk or a movie. Or, even a phone call for goodness sake.

I just didn’t feel safe committing to anything ahead of time. 

Insomnia was so all-consuming that I'd rearrange my entire life around it. (Which of course just feeds insomnia and holds it firmly in place.)

When you start rearranging your life for insomnia, insomnia has become your life.  ~ Sasha Stephens

Why It Happens

There are a few reasons event insomnia occurs:

1. Subconscious links created early in life. Who, in their youth, hasn’t overslept a time or two? Or missed a bus, a shift, or check-in time? Often, these are emotionally charged events that come with some hefty consequences. Which is why they link up strongly in the subconscious. Remember, the brain’s primary job is to keep you safe. So, when presented with a similar event later in life, it will do everything possible to make sure you don’t end up with the same outcome. (Even if it means keeping you awake ALL NIGHT.) It's these early life experiences that drive our thoughts and beliefs about sleep. 

2. Trying too hard to sleep. Here’s the thing about sleep… the harder you try, the harder it is! Sleep is something the body knows how to do just fine on its own. Trying too hard to sleep sends a message to the brain that there’s a problem. This activates the brain and puts it in problem-solving mode which winds you up instead of down.

Trying too hard to sleep actually makes it MORE difficult to fall asleep.

Good sleepers don’t think about sleep at all. They sleep so well precisely because they don't try! They don’t engage in elaborate sleep hygiene, listen to podcasts on sleep, or really seem to care that much about it at all. They just… sleep.

3. Exaggerated beliefs about the consequences of poor sleep. There’s so much information out there promoting fear about the negative impacts of poor sleep that it’s easy to see why people get a little freaked out if they don't. We believe that it causes serious harm, but the truth is not sleeping for a night actually has a very minimal impact on our health. In fact, I dare say, (at least for me), that at times, I’ve actually been MORE on my game after a night without sleep. Go figure.

Were there times that not sleeping before a big day wasn't especially thrilling? For sure. Some of those early morning flights required gallons of caffeine. But for the most part I got through them.

4. Anxiety and night-before jitters. This again, is very normal. The more meaningful the event, the greater the anxiety. Sometimes this is a sign of just how much you value something! The amount of preparation going into the event plays a role as well. Being well-prepared removes several layers of anxiety that might normally be present were you to approach something unprepared (ask me how I know this).

I recently had the benefit of TIME to prepare for a big presentation and boy was it helpful in terms of sleeping the night before.

Now you might be asking what on earth we can do about this type of insomnia?

How to Sleep Well Before a Big Event

1. Address subconscious links. Look at past events in your life where you may have made an oath or a decision to never oversleep again. Or, perhaps you had a bad experience with an exam or a presentation and now your brain is shooting out stress chemicals the night before in anticipation of a similar event. (Quite possibly your brain is keeping you up to prolong the time before the event, thereby keeping you safer.)

Go to the events that created the thoughts and beliefs around special events and give the unconscious mind permission to change them. Introduce a new oath, decision, or belief. I've found that the best way to do this is through tapping.

2. Schedule time for Deliberate Worry. I learned this technique from Nick Wignall (blogger extraordinaire). It's a practice intended to address worries and anxiety during a scheduled time. This reduces their intensity and makes it less likely for them to interrupt us at bedtime. 

Wignall says:

"... one of the primary functions of worry is memory enhancement. In other words, we worry so that we won’t forget. This means that if we have lots of outstanding or unaddressed anxieties or problems, without a good system in place for organizing, keeping track of, and taking action on them, our minds will keep playing them over and over so that we don’t forget."

I schedule Deliberate Worry sessions about 3-7 days before a special event depending on what it is. This practice consists of a writing down everything of concern even if it doesn't make sense. Just a complete brain dump on paper. Don't censor yourself, just get it all down.

After listing everything that comes through my consciousness (this can take anywhere from 3-10 minutes), I circle my top three concerns. Then, in a separate column or on a different piece of paper, I write down the top three concerns followed by the smallest, most actionable step to address each concern. 

So, for me and my early morning flight pattern, an actionable step might be scheduling some time the day before for an extra good work-out to increase sleep drive. Or, for a presentation, it might be a few extra run-throughs so I can feel prepared. Jot down whatever small action step makes the most sense for your concern. You can read more about Deliberate Worry in Nick's blog

 3. Build up your sleep drive. Sleep drive builds up over the course of a day. Imagine a balloon... When it comes to sleep drive, we want a BIG balloon 🎈

Things like naps and caffeine deflate the balloon while things like exercise and sleep restriction inflate the balloon. The bigger the sleep drive (balloon), the more  likely you are to not only sleep, but have better quality sleep. 

In the case of special event insomnia, you can create a big ballon several days ahead of time by utilizing things like exercise and sleep restriction. Exercising more and getting up earlier and/or going to bed later a few days before the event can make you sleepier and much more likely to sleep soundly the night before your big day. 

4. *Let go of any expectations around sleep the night before a special event.* This, in my opinion, is the ultimate solution for special event insomnia. Letting go of the attachment to sleep and the fear of not getting any sleep is the best approach to actually sleeping! 

Insomnia is caused largely by the fear of not sleeping. 

If you don't get the sleep you'd like, don't pay any attention to it the next day. Don't give it any power. Just accept the fact that you're tired and that's okay. Allow the tiredness to be there without focusing on it. Remember, one missed night of sleep has very little impact on our performance. 

Good News and Even Better News

I was recently scheduled to give a presentation that I was pretty nervous about. And for the first time ever, I slept GREAT the night before. I mean, I felt like I had seriously ARRIVED on this sleep thing. 

Then, a week later, I had one of those early morning flights I mentioned earlier. And guess what? I didn't sleep at all. Not a wink. Nope. But here's the thing.... I could've cared less. 

I didn't react, I didn't worry, I didn't Google. I just pretty much ignored it and didn't think too much about it at all.  

So, I'm calling it a #WIN. 

Cheering you on always,

Beth Kendall MA, FNTP

Holistic Sleep Coach

Health Disclaimer: The information and other content provided in this blog, or in any linked materials, are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice, nor is the information a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment.

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