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Dealing with Exhaustion: 10 Tips to Function Better When You’re Tired

I’ve written about ways to get better sleep, and yet I am writing this post from a state of exhaustion.

Despite knowing all the right things to do, sometimes it’s difficult to follow through.

You can have the most calming, zen bedroom, and still toss and turn because of an ache or something on your mind. You can avoid stimulants and start unwinding early in the evening, and still wake up to the sound of a blaring siren at 2:00 AM.

Sometimes the best laid plan can fall apart when you can’t seem to remove that pea from under your mattress. It will happen on occasion—hopefully less often than not, but from time to time at best.

How can you function when it’s just not possible to call in sick and tired to life? How can you make it through the work day with minimal damage to your health, mood, relationships, and job?

I have a few ideas, but first, in the interest of full disclosure: I have more flexibility than the average person might, since I work from home and make my own schedule. Hopefully these ideas represent a balanced mix for people who have flexibility and people who don’t:

1. Protect your health.

When you don’t get enough sleep, you compromise your immune system. One thing I like to do when I am particularly exhausted is increase my intake of foods that have the opposite effect.

Dark colored produce, like broccoli and berries which are high in antioxidants are a great choice.I also like Emergen-C, a powder supplement you add to water, which boosts energy and bolsters the immune system.

2. Carpool or take the bus.

If you’re exhausted, there’s a good chance you’re also running late for work. That might make it inconvenient to take public transportation—but it’s better to slink past your boss’ office door at 9:30 or 10:00 than to fall asleep at the wheel.

I know because I’ve been there. In 2000, I fell asleep on the highway and crashed into the guardrail. Luckily, no one got hurt, but that’s not always the case. In 2009, as many as 1.9 million Americans had a car accident or close call because of drowsiness.

According to David Cloud, head of the National Sleep Foundation in Washington D.C., its possible to fall into a three to four second microsleep without knowing it—which is all the time needed to travel the length of a football field basically unconscious.

3. Get into the sun.

Fifteen minutes in the sun can increase your vitamin D levels. The vitamin, along with B, is responsible for fighting fatigue. People with deficiencies often experience tiredness, moodiness, aches, and stress. While a little extra sunshine can’t replace the benefits of consistent sleep, soaking in the rays can pep you up a bit.

4. Eat several small meals instead of large, heavy ones.

Ever notice how a big, heavy meal makes you want to curl up in the fetal position and check out for an hour or so? Spacing out your meals helps regulate your blood sugar and should also help increase your energy throughout the day.

Also, avoid processed, fatty foods, sweets, or foods with refined white carbohydrates. They don’t contain enough nutrients and are easily digested and absorbed, which means you’ll feel energized at first and sluggish shortly after. You’re already tired—why add fuel to the fire?

5. Avoid caffeine.

If you drink a lot of caffeine, your body’s response to it will change. You could drink over eight cups and still feel sluggish—but that doesn’t mean you won’t get the headache, irritability, dehydration, and host of other side effects that come with caffeine-overload.

Instead, try an energy boosting food, like almonds, oranges, salmon, spinach, or blueberries.

6. Spend some time under bright light.

Sleep researchers suggest this will help you feel more alert. In a 2007 study of women with breast cancer, increased exposure to bright light during chemotherapy resulted in less fatigue and better sleep.

7. Resist the urge to channel your crankiness.

You might feel inclined to confront someone who wronged you when you’re exhausted. Whenever you feel something uncomfortable, it’s tempting to channel it somewhere—to take the feeling and do something with it. Fight the urge. You aren’t thinking clearly enough to have a productive conversation, and you’ll likely say something you regret.

In fact, if you have any big meetings scheduled, do your best to push them to another day, even if it ruffles some feathers. According to the National Sleep Foundation, staying awake for 18 hours causes you to function similarly to someone with .08 blood alcohol level. You wouldn’t lead an important meeting drunk—would you?

8. Be gentle with yourself.

When you’re tired, it’s all too easy to get irritable and moody. You might even have a mini breakdown. (Admission: I’ve cried over ridiculous things when I’ve been extremely exhausted.)

Know that this is normal, but plan to combat it. Avoid people or situations that trigger anger or frustration. Use a deep breathing relaxation technique when you feel yourself getting antsy. Anything to keep your nerves calm.

9. Catnap if you can.

If you don’t have a hammock or canopy bed adjacent to your desk, this might not be an option. (Of course this never stopped me when I worked in a corporate environment—I took quite a few naps in my car.)

If you can nap, however, the right length is crucial. If you sleep for too short or too long a time, it will work against you. Experts suggest 20 minutes is ideal, since it generally takes 10 minutes to fall asleep and 10 for light, restful sleep. If you can’t fall asleep on demand, you might consider a brainwave entrainment CD (Google it!) to help slow your brainwaves.

10. Prepare to avoid making the same mistake tonight.

Most of the time when we don’t get enough sleep, we are directly responsible. Whether you put too much on your plate or stayed up to late, the constant is personal choice. It’s not always the case—if you have a baby, for example. But most of the time, it is.

If you recognize that sleep deficiency is causing your problems, set out to address the root cause. Deal with stresses that are keeping you up at night. Change your environment to allow for better sleep. If all else fails, see your doctor to check for health issues that might be affecting your sleep.

Your energy, your focus, and your attention are your greatest resources. They’re what you use to make a difference in the world; they’re the best gifts you can give to your friends and family. Protect them as best you can by taking the time you need to recharge.

If from time to time you can’t, be gentle with yourself and take even better care than you usually do. A little self-kindness can go a long way in making a bad situation better.

Photo by Alex Bellink. This post originally appeared on tinybuddha.com in 2010.

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About Lori Deschene

Tiny Buddha Founder Lori Deschene is the author of the Tiny Wisdom eBook series and co-founder of Recreate Your Life Story, an eCourse that helps you change your life. She's now seeking stories for her next book, 365 Tiny Love Challenges from Tiny Buddha. Click here to share your story and follow on Facebook for inspiring posts and wisdom quotes.

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  • jslou67

    Wow, what strange and perfect timing–my boyfriend has the worst time getting enough sleep, and I just emailed some tips to him today. And now have emailed this as well, thanks! :)

  • Dtlandry

    One great thing i've found that can greatly help when i'm feeling fatigued is just to drink some water. Even one glass of water can make a world of difference.

  • http://www.girlaboutauckland.co.nz Auckland Girl

    Great article. It's hard to not get emotional when exhausted and frustrated from lack of sleep.

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  • http://twitter.com/CalgarySlim Calgary Slim

    This might be the only webpage in existence that actually has beneficial tips for functioning on minimal sleep. Your guidance helped me get through a day of multiple final exams on 3 hours of sleep. Thank you!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome! I have had many of those days. I’m glad to be helpful. =)

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  • Sax

    Ive been up for almost 3 days n do awake overnights at wrk wat would u recamend??

  • http://gumption.typepad.com Joe McCarthy

    Another strategy I like to employ during periods of extended sleep deprivation is to exercise. I sometimes find that a half-hour workout on my elliptical trainer can compensate for 1-2 hours of lost sleep. Unfortunately, periods of extended sleep deprivation often accompany periods of intense work activity, so I have often not followed this strategy, instead increasing my caffeine intake to compensate for lost sleep (although I do regularly eat most of the foods you list in your “energy boosting” category).

    I strongly second your recommendation of “being gentle with yourself”, both physically and mentally. As a lifelong perfectionist, during periods of intense work activity, I typically encounter unsought opportunities to make my peace with imperfection(s), and doing so in a gentle way – rather than beating up on myself for not having worked harder or longer (i.e., being more perfect) – has been essential to maintaining any semblance of peace of mind during these periods.

  • http://twitter.com/ArenSwensin Aren Swensin

    This article spoke directly to me. I have been having sleep issues the past week, and have felt completely moody and unable to enjoy anything. I actually assumed it was a sleep issue from the start, but I could not fix it.

    I am closing on a house in a week, and while I am excited and feel completely comfortable with it, I feel like it has to still be stressing me out in some way because I have been so tired and unable to get to sleep. I have had to resort to sleeping pills every now and then which I hate because the next morning I typically feel just as tired as if I had laid around taking the extra hours to fall asleep anyway.

    The weather has also been VERY cold and gloomy and I typically walk/run for a good chunk of time everyday, which has been nearly impossible, and even if I do make it out, there is no direct sunlight anywhere to be found, and I know how sunlight enhances your mood. I actually got a tanning membership last winter partially just for that reason that the light may enhance my mood, and I felt that it did. Come summer I cancelled it for real sunlight activities.

    This is a great post though because it was an excellent reminder that I need to try whatever it takes to get sleep and sun back and my mood may return, because I was really worried and felt so helpless this week!

  • Nat

    I’ve been battling adrenal exhaustion for the last 6 months, and all of those techniques are important! Great article.

  • http://www.facebook.com/elysia.lock Elysia Lock

    I’m pregnant so this advice is very relevant to me right now. Thank you.

  • emily

    Thanks for the good advice. Personally, i have chronic insomnia and severe anemia so i’m always struggling with exhaustion and it’s a pain to deal with at school and studying at home because it messes with my memory and concentration. I haven’t found a solution but these are helpful tips. Thanks again :D

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Your’e most welcome! I’m glad this helped a little.

  • Amber May

    Thank you for this amazing article, its the first i have found that doesn’t just say get some sleep. I have a sick 2 year old that isn’t sleeping and midterms. Really just hoping to get through the day!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome. I hope your 2-year old gets well soon–and good luck with the midterms!

  • http://twitter.com/camflynn Katie Taylor

    So uhm..about number 7. What do you do when someone actively picks a fight with you when you’re exhausted?

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    I tend to be more emotional when I’m exhausted, so I generally say, “I’m really not in a good place to discuss this now. Can we continue this conversation tomorrow?”

  • Darion

    Namaste

  • Pamala Vela

    I started being very conscious of how much water I drink daily – about three months ago. I found I was not drinking nearly what my doctor recommended to me. I started drinking more, and noticed that my energy level went up, so I did more so I slept better. Rinse and repeat!

  • Pamala Vela

    Aww congrats! This is a special time in your life. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did mine.

  • Pamala Vela

    Beneficial article for those of us being kept up by night sweats (who refuse to take nasty nasty drugs for them). Thanks! This is a great site – I’m going to look over your other articles. Isn’t the simplicity of common sense wonderful?

  • dan

    This didn’t help at all!

  • jason

    I…HATE…SCHOOL!!!

  • ELSA

    congarts!!!

  • Lorraine

    thanks for the help Lori

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome. =)